The Dreaming Land
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
The Dreaming Land is Martin Edmond’s first full-length work of autobiography, but he’s been working in the territory of life writing and memoir for a long time. He is a prolific essayist, and some of these shorter pieces are collected in Waimarino County and Other Excursions (2007). Chronicle of the Unsung (2004), for which he picked up the biography section of the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, works as four long, interconnected pieces of memoir. There are also his many biographical works in which Edmond tends to write as what British biographer Richard Holmes terms a “Romantic biographer”, using his own passionate engagement with his subjects as a bridge by which readers are invited to enter his subjects’ experiences. This approach is most explicit in Edmond’s first two prose books, The Autobiography of my Father (1992), about his father Trevor Edmond, and The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont (1999), but it is still evident – if in stranger form – in his more recent, quite wonderful, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011).
When approaching his writing on whatever subject, then, Edmond readers have come to expect a distinctive, often melancholic, searching voice. At its best, we know the experience of reading Edmond will offer a kind of intimacy, a sense of encounter with another person characteristic of the strand of non-fiction writing now often called creative nonfiction. In Edmond’s case, we also expect this human presence, or intimate speaking voice, will be carried by a prose flexible and reflexive enough to evoke the exploring mind in all its discoveries and self-doubts. For over two and a half decades, he has been exploring his own experience and using it to ask how we have, do, and could understand ourselves and the Pacific-rim culture we inhabit. This has led to recognition recently by such awards as the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (Non-fiction, 2013) and the prestigious Michael King Fellowship in 2015, recognition all the more noteworthy given that Edmond has lived in Sydney since 1981.
However, as I have said elsewhere, Edmond has also spoken and written about how writing autobiography is not “tenable or viable”, and has critiqued the impulse of much life writing to construct a narrative of cause and effect structured by the search for (and discovery of) a kind of true, authentic self. Chronicle of the Unsung, in particular, is about the nature of the self – or lack of a self to be discovered. All this is relatively commonplace in theory circles, where challenging the “master narrative” of “the sovereign self” is familiar stuff, as is critically examining the link between the growth in autobiographical and biographical writing in the 19th century and an emergent emphasis on the autonomous individual. In its most anodyne form, this takes the form of aspirational or inspirational narratives of success: How I became a writer, president, lap-dancer, alcoholic, happy …. However, it’s much easier to critique such conventions than to get beyond them in practice, where the drive to narrative makes it hard not to suggest that one thing led naturally on to another.
In Chronicle of the Unsung Edmond is explicitly in conversation with his mother, the poet Lauris Edmond, whose important three-volume autobiography can be read as a classic second-wave feminist example of autobiography as developmental narrative. In an essay published in Landfall, Lauris Edmond described her autobiography as an effort to narrate a journey from what she calls “Life Number One” – her life as a more-or-less dutiful wife and mother – to “Life Number Two”, her life as a nationally recognised poet. Within her autobiography itself, “Life Number Two” is repeatedly connected to a “real” or “true” self that was always there waiting to emerge, while in her Landfall essay Lauris Edmond talks of “the search for a pattern of cause and effect in the events of my life” and the discovery that “Everything connected”.
In Chronicle of the Unsung, Martin Edmond moves away from this idea of connection by focusing on four unconnected nine-month periods from his life, but also by incorporating into his own narratives the stories of multiple others, from Rimbaud and Oscar Wilde to Governor George Grey. No less than in his more obviously biographical works, Edmond writes biographically in this work of memoir – his “I” imagines itself and tells its stories through telling the stories of others. “I” and “They” are fragmented and rearranged so that they exist on a kind of continuum. This is no less true of his biographical works, where in the McCahon book in particular he gives little straight biographical information on either McCahon or himself, instead using these individual experiences as vehicles for a narration of wider histories, in this case of alienation and loss, but also of moments of ecstasy.
The Dreaming Land is different. This is Edmond’s first book with his new publisher Bridget Williams Books, a shift from a long-time relationship with Auckland University Press to the press that published his mother. It is certainly the most chronological of Edmond’s books and, perhaps because of that, in some ways is also the most accessible. Much of the material is familiar from elsewhere, especially from the essays published in Waimarino County. But here, for the first time, these moments are brought together as what looks like, and can be read as, a relatively conventional work of chronological autobiography or memoir. Complicating the question of why Edmond has taken this autobiographical turn is the fact that the period it covers is also that covered in the second volume of his mother’s autobiography, meaning that in terms of facts, at least, this particular domestic drama is already one New Zealand readers have heard a lot about. What does this new book, then, attempt?
The Dreaming Land is structured by the different places his family lived until Edmond was 17: Ohakune (always), Greytown, Huntly and Heretaunga. Edmond tends to work in fours. The family’s moves were dictated by his father’s career as a high-school history teacher and then school principal. But the family is not really what the book’s about. One of its primary subjects is memory, which here and elsewhere in Edmond’s writing runs parallel to an interest in how past, present, and future selves (and moments) are related. This is why straight chronological autobiography isn’t viable according to his earlier writings. There’s a searching in The Dreaming Land, an enquiring both explicit and on the level of voice and form, into how to inhabit a moment in the present that also encompasses past and future. The opening section, “Barefoot Years”, which also appeared separately as part of BWB Texts series, begins with a homage to memory from William Carlos Williams, posing memory as “a kind of accomplishment”, a walking of old paths made new by being remembered in the present. The section then immerses us in the pre-chronological memories of early childhood, those “seamless rounds of days”. It’s not so much how these days are experienced that interests Edmond, as how they are remembered, with their “swathes of flowering grasses whose seed heads are so tall and so heavy they bend over me to make an arch: cocksfoot and rye, browntop and featherhead.” At one point there’s reference to a kereru being like a bird in a medieval tapestry, and this evokes something of the experience of entering this part of The Dreaming Land. Highly-coloured details and miniatures fill up every space, but beyond that there is an organising mind to be seen if you step back.
After these “timeless Ohakune years”, the recalling mind finds and follows a more chronological sequence, but the dreamlike sense of different events co-existing in time persists. In fact, this feeling so imbues Edmond’s text that it becomes in part about being nostalgic for things even as they are being experienced, nostalgia for present moments he feels unable to inhabit fully. Perhaps this is melancholy itself. There are also moments of transcendence, such as one in which Dusty Springfield becomes a somewhat unlikely “portal” “into a state in which I seemed able to inhabit past, present and future simultaneously”. It’s all done with a lighter touch than in Chronicle of the Unsung, without needing to state explicitly the complexity of the ideas he’s struggling with (although the subject matter isn’t as intrinsically interesting or new as that of the earlier book). The effect in The Dreaming Land is that such moments manage to come across as both commonplace – evoking that kind of embodied yearning we’ve all experienced listening to a particular song, or looking out the window on a late, yellow afternoon – and as an almost chronic atunement to the world’s passing.
Beyond this, there’s the documentary impulse present from the outset in his writing. Here, this impulse provides many of the easier pleasures of the reading experience, as Edmond describes the everyday of growing up in small-town New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. There are Biggles, Enid Blyton, and immersion in science fiction. There are the cars, the music, the pleasure of the radio in the 1960s and the fact that you could get on the bus in the morning and everyone had been listening to the same songs. There’s cruising the main drag in the hope of some kind of action and scenes that show just how much Pākehā were missing of the lives of the Māori communities in their midst. Throughout, there’s a sense of recording a community worth remembering, both for itself and because it still shapes our own. The Dreaming Land is full of sentences like: “Those Friday nights are a thing of the past now, but they were a ritual.” A key metaphorical thread running through the book is Edmond’s early desire to be an archaeologist, “to dig up treasure from the ground” and somehow restore it, “if only in imagination”.
The word “portal” is one he likes. At one point he reflects on the pleasure of discovering not only that writing could itself be a kind of portal to other times, but that his own writing could become a portal for others to use. The American essayist Terry Castle talks about how memoir authorises other memoirs, other memories. In writing about a grandparent, you invite others to think and write about their own. In bringing up buried treasure, and imbuing the everyday of the past with a new sense of beauty, complexity, and wonder, in many ways The Dreaming Land does just that – it authorises, calls up, invites other memories. This is both an intensely personal and an intensely communal work.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I launched this book at Unity Books in Wellington late last year. At the launch there was a moment in which Edmond endorsed my suggestion of the book as a communal work, going on to say something about how “everyone” of his generation had the same childhood. A slight moment of shuffling, wine-sipping discomfort followed, especially among the women in the room. This brought home to me that The Dreaming Land is also a book about a particularly male, and particularly Pākehā, experience. Pākehā male experience is perhaps Edmond’s great subject, and it seems worth acknowledging that. At the same time, however, as I know from my own abiding fascination with his writing, his making of his own experience in language is also open enough to allow others to enter and pass through. To my mind, The Dreaming Land stands up well alongside Edmond’s other writing. The autobiographical pieces work better here than in the disconnected essays that have appeared elsewhere – the chronology of the life works as a scaffold on which to hang his reflections on memory and to evoke the feeling of how things once were. Time proceeds in The Dreaming Land not as one thing marching on to the next, but as a kind of accumulation of experience. This accumulation works to do justice to the strangeness of what it is to be alive, to grow up, to change, and for the world to change around us.
Ingrid Horrocks is a writer who teaches creative nonfiction and English at Massey Wellington. A longer version of this discussion in relation to Edmond’s earlier work appears, along with an accompanying interview, as “ ‘something else is going on, an interaction, an exchange’: Martin Edmond’s Lives,” in Biography 38.4 (Fall 2015).