Grudging nationalist, Mark Williams

Charles Brasch: Journals 1945-1957
Peter Simpson (ed)
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781927322284

I approached this book rather in the spirit of someone visiting a civic monument to a figure august and admired, but obscurely known. In the late 1980s, as one of the many editors of Landfall in that period, I spent time in the Caxton Press checking proofs, following a tradition of care established by Charles Brasch 40 years earlier. But the strong ghosts I recall in a building filled with reminders of eminence were those of Janet Frame, whose visits and material remnants still held occult power, and Robin Dudding, veiled in a scandalous story that I gathered had more than one way of telling. Brasch’s presence was fainter somehow, less detectable in the busy workings of the printing house that had hosted him and sacked his heir, Dudding.

Yet Brasch was the demiurge who fashioned Landfall out of unpromising and scattered materials in 1940s New Zealand, establishing it as the nation’s premier literary journal until the late 1960s and as a journal of international standing. It was an extraordinary achievement, and its agent deserves the kind of notice achieved by larger-than-life literary figures like Denis Glover or Allen Curnow. Brasch is the most private of these eminences, without the compelling personality of a sometimes delinquent Glover or a Moseslike Curnow, bearing the tablets of How to Write Here. Even Brasch’s homosexuality is not as fascinating as Frank Sargeson’s sly, disturbing and endlessly complex variations on the unmentionable theme. Yet Brasch is the nurse, guide and benefactor of cultural nationalism, and this edition of Brasch’s journals from the period leading up to the launch of Landfall allows us to see a humanly sized Brasch’s prodigious achievements in more precise detail and with more sympathy.

Peter Simpson has done an excellent job here in selecting his material with attention to both its public and personal interest, while exercising a necessary economy. He observes that he looked for passages “that seemed to me the most interesting and revealing about [Brasch] as a person, about his work as a poet and editor, and about the worlds, both public and private, in which he moved.”

In respect of the personal element, Brasch’s gayness was an enticement for me because it is well known, but has not been elaborated as fully as Sargeson’s. It stands apart from his literary life more than from Sargeson’s, where it is impossible to ignore sidelong nudges to the reader. Sargeson assaults us with his bursting-to-be-revealed gayness; Brasch was publically discreet, but he could be open in private. He can write with candid enthusiasm of sexuality: “and my seed spilled over”, and reflect with Oscar Wildean wisdom that “love is in its beginning undifferentiated & may be equally for man or for woman, [so] that only social pressures determine that it is fixed so uniformly on one sex.”

Reading through this uncensored record of a personal life with its frustrations, affections, loves and loneliness, one is never distant from the life of a man thinking hard about the land, its unfinished people and the artists, musicians and writers wrestling with their means of stamping its place in the larger worlds of culture. Brasch experiences an epiphany encountering Douglas Lilburn’s music, overwhelmed that such brilliance has come out of New Zealand. He weights up the assured young James K Baxter (“with his clear-eyed simplicity”) and takes in Curnow with a mixture of respect for his “largeness of intellectual grasp” and personal recoil. He is impatient with the persistent Louis Johnson and somewhat disapproving of Glover’s “robust” heterosexuality. Above all, he is not just an acute predictor of artistic greatness, but also an editor weighing promise against achievement as he builds a magazine.

For all his dedication to bringing the cultural nation into being, Brasch is a grudging nationalist. He is oppressed by the physical ugliness of New Zealand cities after returning from Britain, noting the “tremendous contrast” between New Zealand and Britain, and the “hardness and emptiness of NZ” that “repels and frightens me a little”. But he looks closely as he travels through the country, taking in the often disappointing landscapes, yet fascinated by the difference between Wellington and Auckland. Already within an emerging cultural nationalism, the cities – even if impermanent and improvised – figure as generative centres indicating that they will become as important as that abstraction, the nation.

The ground covered in these journals has been overwritten with criticism, biographies and histories, as cultural nationalism became the defining moment in our history. But the periods either side of it – the 1920s with their saccharine “Kowhai Gold” and the try-hard alternative culture of the 1960s – lack the literary concentration of cultural nationalism. The question, then, is how do we understand this crucial figure in relation to that movement; how do these journals, which record personal as well as literary judgements, help us enter the guarded world of Charles Brasch and the embryonic national culture he cudgelled and coddled towards maturity? Simpson has done a fine job here of giving us access to both the man and his world.

Mark Williams is the editor of A History of New Zealand Literature (2016).

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