Many years ago, maybe twenty, I had a dream which, in the way of such things, I wrote down and augmented and published, twice, once online and once in print (Waimarino County). It was about Joseph Conrad. People had told me that Nostromo was his greatest book and so I acquired somewhere a copy – a Penguin Classic – and set myself to read it. I couldn’t do it. I remember that paperback volume, browning and fading and disintegrating, lying abandoned on the shelf behind the back seat of another failed project, the white 1965 XP Falcon I bought in the 1990s and tried to restore and never did. I still reckon that car (it was stolen, not from me, but from my Polish neighbour, Stefan, to whom I sold it) is in a garage round the corner from here. Not yet restored, but almost. If I had the key I swear I’d drive it away. Anyway. Few weeks ago I found a copy of Nostromo (hardback, Everyman, big print, long intro, author’s preface) in the Ashfield library. I just finished reading it. About an hour ago. Still reeling. The Silver of the Mine. The Isabels. The Lighthouse. They are what the three sections are called. I’m not going to try to anatomise the read here, it’s all too fresh. But it is a book about money. Something Conrad saw, sailing all around the world as a young man (he started at 17), first in the French merchant marine, later in the English, gave him a preternatural insight into the mechanisms of mercantalism, to coin a phrase. The titular character is based upon a Corsican Joseph sailed with out of Marseilles: Dominique Cervoni. ‘In his eyes lurked a look of perfectly remorseless irony, as though he had been provided with an extremely experienced soul; and the slightest distension of his nostrils would give to his bronzed face a look of extraordinary boldness. This was the only play of feature of which he seemed capable, being a Southerner of a concentrated, deliberate type.’ But what Conrad imagines in Nostromo is the intricate processes which lead to the corruption and death of this incorruptible. It is so distressing that you almost wish to resign from your own life as a consequence: if this man’s ethic fails him, what chance do the rest of us have? Even though, or especially, it is based upon the good opinion others have of him. The strangest thing for me was the realisation that the plot of Nostromo, which turns upon the digging up and then the reburying of a large amount of a precious metal (silver not gold), is mirrored in the one, in all innocence and under very different circumstances, Leon Narbey and I came up with for our film Illustrious Energy. It’s enough to take you back to the Periodic Table, and to the eternal wondering as to what these elements really are and what they really mean.
In the summer of 2013 I received a letter from James McNeish. He said he had a proposition to put to me—but I would have to come to Wellington, New Zealand, to find out what it was. I’m not an especially busy person at the best of times but just then I was about to submit the dissertation for my doctorate; and also to begin tutoring a course at the University of Western Sydney. When did the semester begin: the last week of February? I looked at the calendar. Maybe someone else could take my first week of tutorials if the trans-Tasman trip spilled over into the beginning of term? I called the course convener and explained the situation. She said it was fine. She said go. ‘Writing Ecologies’ is the name of the course she, with another, devised and teaches. Whatever James was proposing would fit—conceptually at least. It would be a writing ecology.
I first encountered James in 2006 at the Going West Festival in Titirangi. We were both guests there and by some chance staying in the same place. Owen Marshall might have been there as well. Anyway, when I met James, he seemed cross. It was breakfast time and he was wearing a woollen suit and a loosely knotted red tie. Why haven’t we met before? he asked. I didn’t know the answer to that, and didn’t really know why it should even have been a question. It just seemed like happenstance. James had by then written both Dance of the Peacocks and its sequel, The Sixth Man; the book he was representing, which he sent me a copy of afterwards, was the second volume of a three part memoir: An Albatross Too Many. The inscription upon the fly leaf reads: After a delayed meeting. So there was a puzzle to solve.
I’d become aware of McNeish the writer many years before, in Auckland in the early 1970s. There was an enthusiasm for his novel, Mackenzie. Michael Volkerling, who was my sister’s boyfriend, as well as being editor of, I think, the Post Primary Teachers Association Journal, asked me to review it for the publication. I still have the inscribed hardback copy he and my sister gave to me but, although I read and loved the book, I didn’t know how to write about it and no review ever eventuated. I remember the foolscap page with the title and a single typed sentence at the top and then no more. I was too young, too unconfident. I told this story to James over breakfast. He made a face. An American publisher, he said, rejected that book because he felt it lacked ‘narrative drive’. Then he laughed. It didn’t occur to him that I wasn’t trying for ‘narrative drive’.
He was good and easy to talk to but I hadn’t properly kept up with his work; so it was perplexing to find that he knew mine. Over the course of the conversations we had at the festival, and the letters we began to exchange afterwards, I realised he saw me as a kindred spirit. He seemed to have identified tendencies in the way I write that are also apparent in what he has written. He never said this; but it was almost as if he saw me as an heir. I am conscious of the temerity in even making such a suggestion. After all, James has an international reputation whereas mine is confined to pockets of the antipodes; his work covers a far wider thematic range than mine ever has; and he has as many novels as he does works of non-fiction in his oeuvre. Whereas, if you except a few raggedy poems and some dubious screenplays, I’ve written nothing but essays.
For reasons I don’t recall our correspondence lapsed and wasn’t revived until New Zealand Books asked me to review Touchstones, James’ third volume of memoir. Therein I picked up something that still resonates. I think I was born slow, he wrote. I was an innocent. This for a writer can be a tremendous asset. My greatest training, it turned out, was that I was untrained; impressionable and trusting by nature, I was capable of being moved. I retained, in other words, the power to be shocked. I too am an untrained writer, a kind of innocent; I had to learn to write by doing so: perhaps that was the basis of our putative kinship? It was after my review of Touchstones was published that James wrote to me again, enclosing what I’m calling ‘the summons’. He had a proposition to put to me. What could it be?
The morning after I arrived in Wellington I rang James from Roseneath. He said come over. I went down Grass Street, by my mother’s old house at number 22 (it looked neglected), past my grandparent’s former flat, where my parents lived after they were married, through the scintillations of light coming off the sea at Oriental Bay and on into the city. Wellington is to me a conundrum. My first city, if not my last. Past, present and future are so mixed here that I am unable to say what is actual, as opposed to what may be imagined or remembered. This could be a life condition. I walked down Courtenay Place, Manners Street, into Willis Street. Ghosts thick on the pavements; future ghosts, ghosts of the living, gone ghosts. From the arcade on Lambton Quay I took the elevator to the James Cook hotel and exited onto The Terrace, where the McNeishs lived in two small flats in a modest building.
Mindful of the complexities of his entrances, James met me in the foyer and ushered me up to the eighth floor. His wife, Helen, lived in a different apartment, looking a different way, on a different floor: a sensible arrangement, though it did involve them in quite a lot of daily to-ing and fro-ing. They took coffee together, or lunch, or afternoon tea. One evening I had dinner with them in Helen’s place, which seemed actually to be situated in some European city, Prague perhaps. I remember, the first time I met her, Helen looking hard at me and saying: So, you are after some treasure? She was implying, I think, that I was a gold-digger, that I might have in mind some sort of exploitation of James’ eminence—and innocence. But when I explained how it appeared to me, she relaxed, became gracious and kind. I had passed the test.
James’ place too was exotic, though I couldn’t figure out precisely where to locate it. Somewhere between London and Berlin? Or further south? Anyway, it is a privilege and an honour to visit an admired writer’s working space and I was avid for looking and remembering; by the same token, it seems indiscreet, if not plain rude, to go on too much about it. Suffice to say that it was sparse, orderly, comfortable and with an almost indefinable sense of intrigue: as if mysteries were enacted here. A scent / as indecipherable as Moscow. On that first morning James sat me down at a small wooden table and repaired to the kitchen to clean up after a spill. Some milk had boiled over and he wanted to make sure he soaked it all up before it went rancid. Then he made coffee, set out a plate of biscuits, and sat down opposite me at that little table. It was time for the proposition to be put.
What he said was this: he had amassed a great deal of material during his research for Dance of the Peacocks and The Sixth Man; this was material he would not be using in any further writing projects; would I like to look through his files to see if there was anything therein of interest to me? I said: absolutely; and he smiled, whether from relief or something more knowing I couldn’t tell. How long did I have? he wondered. I thought three days. That should be ample, he murmured. Ample. He suggested I spend those three days in his apartment, reading through files with which he would supply me; and then, if anything occurred to me, we could take it from there. I’ll be in and out, mostly out, he said. I won’t disturb you.
He was good as his word. James was one of those writers who do their work early in the morning and have the rest of the day free for other things. When, after walking across the city and taking the lift, I arrived a bit after nine each morning, he would already have completed his writing for the day. Not that he ever said anything much about it; nor did he say, or only in passing, and then enigmatically, what he was working on. A book about a German wrestler. Something he thought of calling, after the Sebastian Faulks’ book, The Fatal New Zealander. He was, as he said he would be, mostly out; but we usually lunched together. Fine, tasty lunches. Sometimes Helen joined us for coffee. Mostly I was alone with his files behind glowing rattan blinds that masked windows looking north and east over Port Nicholson.
The files were things of beauty. They partook of my description of the apartment, above: sparse, orderly with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue. They were like intelligence files assembled by a consummate spy-master. Many entries were typed on A4 paper using the courier font; some were just a sentence or two; others pages long. They might have been the fruit of a conversation, or an interview; they might have been notes to self or notes derived from reading. There were documents, photocopied from disparate sources. Some personal letters. A few photographs or copies of same. And reports gathered on James’ behalf by other researchers. These were loosely arranged as dossiers on various individuals, most of whom I had not encountered before. Each morning there was a new pile set out for me to read.
I suspect that the dossiers were the outcome of a long period of focussed inquiry going as far back perhaps as the research for James’ 1986 book on Jack Lovelock. It was a remark of James Bertram’s that set McNeish onto Lovelock: Bertram, who knew him at Oxford, called Lovelock a young god under strain. Lovelock was a Rhodes scholar and James seems to have become interested in finding out the fate of other Rhodes scholars; and, more generally, what happened to talented New Zealanders who, for some reason or other, ended up spending most of their lives overseas. James, who had himself spent long periods living abroad, and a longer period living in a very remote part of the country, glossed his avowed interest in these figures as a means of coming to a closer understanding of what might be called the national character. Who are New Zealanders really and what are the influences, the factors, that have made us so?
I don’t particularly share this interest in ‘national character’ per se but I am fascinated by character. Over the three days I spent in James’ apartment, four of the people in his rogue’s gallery lodged themselves, as it were, in my mind. At the same time, I began to see a chronological structure in which I could, severally and together, place them. On that last afternoon, which may have been a Thursday, with the light of the westering sun streaming obliquely through the rattan blinds, glimpses of the blue harbour in the distance, I put my plan to James. This is what I would like to do, I said, these are the figures I would like to write about, this is the use I would like to put to the gift you have offered me. This is the shape I would like to make.
If he was surprised he didn’t let on. If he had, in some sense, in his own mind anticipated this was the way I might want to go, he didn’t admit to that either. He was scrupulous and non-committal, though never unenthusiastic; and remained so for the duration of my writing of the book; which I completed, in draft form, just a few weeks ago. I felt like an operative going into the field in order to add something to the extant intelligence upon a particular subject; and that he was my controller. I felt like I had a mission that was both inchoate and yet of some importance. I sensed the dire impossibility, and the risk, of failure. I also felt I had the freedom to succeed, or not, on my own terms. I said I would put my proposal down on paper and send it to him to read. This is what I sent:
There was a medical museum downstairs, next to the entrance to the lecture theatre, in a small rectangular basement room with tall glass cases lining the walls. The first thing I saw in there was a caul, spilling out of a specially made engraved silver receptacle. I had never seen a caul before. It was strangely white, intricate and beautiful, as if brocaded out of sea foam. They are rare (one in 80,000 births) and there are several kinds; one of which comes as a full helmet, attached by buds of tissue to the skin of the head and hooked behind the ears. This one was old, eighteenth century I think. You couldn’t help but wonder who it had belonged to. Napoleon was born in a caul; so was Lord Byron; and David Copperfield, even though he is a fiction. Freud, Liberace and Lillian Gish; but this one did not look like it had covered the faces of any of them. Cauls are, famously, thought to be a prophylactic against drowning.
Most of the rest of the museum was given over to the display of instruments of the gruesome, superseded kind. There were many ingenious tools for removing bullets from different parts of the bodies of those wounded in battle; and, even more alarming, instruments whose purpose was the taking out of gall or kidney stones. Despite myself, I became fascinated with these. Those unfortunates who were to be operated upon were strapped into a special chair, which was open below: extraction was generally accomplished by means of an incision in the perineum; the surgeon worked from underneath. The instrument, like a long, narrow set of pincers, was pushed upwards and probed about in the abdominal cavity until it could grasp the stone in its claws and then withdraw. The operation, a wall text explained, was bloody and extremely painful. Hence the leather straps which held the patient imprisoned for the duration in that sinister chair. I shuddered and moved on.
In a case on the third wall there was another intriguing object: a piece of pounamu, New Zealand greenstone, in a leather pouch. Perhaps twenty centimetres long and cylindrical or hexagonal—or something of that nature. It was hard to see if, or how much, the jade had been worked because it was still mostly within its pouch. Made of the bright green kind called kawakawa, it belonged to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery during World War Two. A friend, a doctor from New Zealand (how I wish I had remembered to write down his name!) had given it to Monty in 1944, for luck, and he had carried it on his person from that moment until the war was over. That is, from a month before the D Day landings and on through all subsequent actions until May, or perhaps even August, 1945.
That pounamu helped to win the war! I thought. Ka pai. It seemed a propitious moment to leave the Royal College of Physicians behind. I wandered back across Regents Park and, on the other side, at 219 Baker Street, came across a bookshop called The Alef and went in to check it out. Borgesian as that name sounds, it was in fact the newly opened London branch of Egypt’s largest chain of bookstores, and mostly sold texts in Arabic or texts that were translations from the Arabic; many gorgeous editions of the Koran. Alef’s mission is, their website says, to create highly knowledgeable, intellectual and well-read Arab communities throughout the world.
I was feeling distinctly odd by now and when I strayed, almost by accident, into the Sherlock Holmes Museum next door at 221B, it was too much: the souvenirs of someone else who never existed, the clutter of high priced tat, the monogrammed coffee mugs and deer-hunter hats and curved tobacco pipes—but no fits for the injection of cocaine—the looming cheerfulness of the uniformed factotum whose job it was to divest you of the large number of pounds it cost to enter the inner sanctum . . . it was all too much. Mind you, had I seen a T shirt with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face emblazoned upon it, I would have bought one—not for me, for a teen I know who is a fan as well.
Instead I fled, and in the Globe Hotel on Marylebone Road, drank the gassy Stella Artois they had on tap and chatted with a Scottish family, down for the football, until I was ready to go to the burger bar just up the way for a bite to eat and a glass or three of red wine. I was trying to stay awake until night fell; two long episodes of narcoleptic wakefulness followed by two marathons of frantic walking through airport terminals; plus a day on the streets of London; had left me somewhat fatigued. All that imagery buzzing in my head needed the bedding down and editing that dreams provide.
Later, when night had come, and I was drifting off to sleep in my room at the Americana, a line from one of the poems I wrote the last time I was here came back: In Baker Street will you find the key to the mystery? I could hardly believe how dumb I must have been then; nor how good it felt not to be that person anymore; while at the same time knowing he was still somewhere there inside of me, like a mutant shrouded in a caul perhaps, or a shape-shifter chained within one of those trunks Harry Houdini—an illusionist, but not a fiction—had, with incomparable panache, scant difficulty in escaping from.
It was drizzling when I came out of Baker Street station onto Marylebone Road. Black and white movie footage, c 1912, recurred. Same historic city. Same hectic surge of Hansom cabs down towards the West End—though now they are 4WDs—same omnibuses and ambulances, same headlines of impending doom. The same beggars at the gate, with their ancient eyes turned pleadingly away from, or towards, an eternity of need. The fellow I asked the way to Gloucester Place attuned his answer to a register halfway between the importunate and the insubordinate: in case I should turn out (not) to be someone. I told him I am no-one; he believed me; and with the equivocal grace so given I went the way he pointed, west towards Westminster.
I wandered along, bumping my suitcase behind me. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. There was lots to see. A blue plaque commemorated the years film makers Powell and Pressburger spent at Dorset House, a yellow art deco building with elegant Eric Gill stone reliefs either side of the front door. Michael and Emeric, also known as The Archers, had their HQ in a three room flat at #120 from 1942 to 1947, during which period they made half a dozen pictures, including The Red Shoes. There was another blue plaque a little further along, outside the Alliance Francaise, saluting the contribution the Free French made to the war effort. Up ahead I saw a small bent-over grotesque figure in a top hat, like someone out of a Daumier etching, entering the door of the Salvadorian Embassy. Ambassador or nineteenth century ghost?
The young woman who checked me in at the Americana was friendly and soothing and, as I later found out, from the Czech Republic. I’d been talking to her for a while before I realised, with a slight shock, that there was a fellow sitting beside her, his face concealed behind the leaves of an aspidistra. He was tall and thin and dark, with a small beard and long black hair pulled into a pony tail. Iranian, I believe. I liked him too, his world-weary kindliness. He rode a motor bike. He told me my room would be ready soon and suggested that, while I waited, I could get a coffee from the machine in the breakfast room. Somehow I managed to spill hot water all over the floor and was scolded for it by a large, emphatic woman wearing a floral apron over her dress. She was the Polish cook and, once I said I was sorry, instantly became my friend. She gave me a stale croissant to eat with my coffee as I went, in a tiny lift, up to my tiny room.
I was tired but determined not to sleep. I had a shower, shaved, changed my clothes and went for a walk. The Royal College of Physicians wasn’t that far away, across the other side of Regent’s Park, and they had a show on there about Doctor Dee. The park was full of birds. Big brown and white geese. Ducks, in several varieties. A handsome black and white bird with green and purple wings and a long iridescent tail: Pica pica, the Eurasian magpie. I had a Hitchcock moment when a flock of feeding pigeons rose into the air all around me, their beating wings fanning my suddenly flushed cheeks. I heard people talking Russian. And Spanish. There were daffodils blooming. I felt hyper-alert yet faintly delirious. I kept thinking of underwater aviator Jacques Cousteau’s bon mot: Jet lag is my favourite drug.
The Dr Dee exhibition was in glass cases upstairs in a stylish 1960s building designed by architect Denys Lasdun. There was an event on the ground floor: men in suits, women in bright dresses, drinking and eating and talking. I considered joining them but instead trudged dutifully on upwards to the mezzanine. The RCP had some books from the old magician’s famous library, called by Warburg scholar Frances Yates the mind of the Renaissance. The library was dispersed, the books stolen and sold off while the Doctor was away in Prague; with Edward Kelley, making gold for Rudolph II; swapping wives; conjuring spirits. Subsequently, about a hundred volumes have been retrieved and a few of these were on display. Mostly in Latin. Extravagantly annotated: with drawings of ships. Or esoteric monograms.
They were interesting but my attention could not hold. I was looking for something else. And there, down the other end, it was: a case full of scrying instruments. Containing five items: an Aztec mirror; a crystal ball; a facetted jewel; a gold plate; a Claude glass. In the cloudy depths of each of these objects, wonders might be seen; things of occult import, things from the other side; the unseen, momentarily, seen.
The crystal ball was smaller than you might expect, smaller than a cricket ball. Set on a plinth and enticing but I could not see into it. The jewel, large and made of glass, seemed an unlikely scrying tool and so did the flat, dully burnished sheet of gold. I cannot really remember what the Claude glass looked like; it was in a sharkskin case and resembled a small pocket mirror. They were used by painters, who would turn away from the view they wished to depict and transcribe the abbreviated image from within the dark glass instead. The name commemorates French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), active in the century after Doctor Dee had been and gone; presumably this example was used for scrying not painting.
The Aztec mirror was something else. I had heard about it but never thought I would be standing before it. Round, larger than a hand’s-width across, a hole bored at the top to make a handle. Beautiful, dark, reflective black, made from a single piece of polished obsidian. I raised my hand—my right, my writing hand—and saw its wraithy reflection in the mirror. Some charge leapt between image and hand; shuddered up my arm into my brain. Dim old voices muttered in my ears; blood-stained stone altars on the tops of pyramids in the jungle, under an azure sun-struck sky. The night wind whispering across puckering skin.
A ritual object and, for the Aztec, associated with Tezcatlipoca, Lord of Smoke and Mirrors, whose visage could sometimes be seen in, or summoned from, its depths. In pictures of the god his right foot is sometimes replaced by a mirror; which were worn by everyday people too, upon their backs: as if you could carry the unseen with you as you went. Tezcatlipoca has many associations: the night sky, night winds, the north, the earth, rulership, divination, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, strife and war. Fire, too, because of the light that flashes from mirrors. And epithets: We are his Slaves; He by Whom we Live; Enemy of Both Sides; Lord of the Near and Far; Night, Wind; Two Reed; Owner of Earth and Sky. He ruled historical time, was the guardian of ancestral memory and embodied change by means of conflict. Now he was in my soul.
No-one knows how this mirror came to England. They were traded back into Europe after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521; became a fashion amongst royalty; this must have been one of those which made its way north. We don’t even know if it really belonged to Doctor Dee: the only warrant for that is a note affixed to it by a subsequent owner, Horace Walpole, the eighteenth century gothic writer and antiquarian. It reads: The Black Stone into which Dr Dee used to call his spirits. If the Doctor owned it, and I assume he did, what did he think it was? Did he know it was from Mexico? That it was both a conduit for, and an avatar of, Tezcatlipoca? The enemy of both sides?
Doctor Dee was an advocate of calendrical reform, of new cartographic methods, of mathematics as a universal language; he saw angels in his crystal ball and believed he had discovered, and transcribed, the Enochian tongue spoken in the Garden of Eden. Astronomy, navigation, cartography; mathematics, optics, alchemy; divination itself; all were mysteries requiring elucidation. ‘Magic’ and ‘Science’ were indistinguishable. You couldn’t say where one ends and the other begins. The primary distinction was between the occult and the revealed; the scholarly task to find a means of transmission from one to the other. An unfashionable position nowadays; though not for writers: what else do we do?
Image: Joachim Koester, The Magical Mirror of John Dee, 2006, silver gelatin print, 25.5 x 33.5 cm
Katherine Mansfield’s father, Harold Beauchamp, was a Wellington businessman. In the late 1900s and early 20th C. he worked for Bannatyne & Co., importers and general merchants. Here, as a curiosity, is a list of the agencies the firm held:
Messrs. Bannatyne and Co. are district agents for the Royal Insurance Company, Liverpool, and in addition the firm holds the following agencies:—London—Curtis’s and Harvey’s blasting powder; James Pain and Co.’s fireworks; Maignen’s Filtre-Rapide Company, Limited, hygienic filters; R. and N. Pott’s vinegar; E. Lazenby and Son’s oilmen’s stores; T. J. Lipton’s Ceylon, India, and China teas, and essence of coffee; Bovril Company’s Bovril; R Wotherspoon’s corn flour, Apollinaris Company, Limited, Apollnaris water; Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton, Limited, bulk ale; Ind, Coope and Co., Limited, bottled ale, “Roford Bitters” etc. T. P. Griffin and Co.’s Guinness’ Stout, Anglo-Bavarian Ale, etc.; Patterson and Hibbert’s Bass’ Stout; William Teacher and Sons’ (London and Glasgow), Highland Cream Whisky; H. White and Co.’s “Red Heart” rum. Liverpool: Richmond Cavendish and Co’s tobaccos: W. E. Johnson and Co.’s Guinness Stout; James Storer and Co.’s oils and colours; Nobel’s Explosives Co., Ltd., dynamite; Haynes, Finemore and Co.’s lime juice cordial, A. and B. Mackay’s liqueur whisky. New York: American Axe and Tool Company’s Mann’s Maine and Eureka Axes; R. W. Cameron and Co., “Light of the Age” kerosene, Udolpho Wolfe and Sons’ Aromatic Schiedam Schnapps; E. B. Nostrand, Dr. Town-end’s Sarsaparilla; R. W. Cameron and Co.’s Pioneer Line of Sailing Vessels. Hamar: Anglo-Scandinavian Condensed Milk Company’s Milk (Paris Gold Medal brand). San Francisco: Johnson-Locke Mercantile Company’s “Coleman Flag” raisins, “Coleman Flag” salmon, “Thistle Salmon,” Frank B. Peterson and Co., canned and desert fruits, preserved provisions, etc. Richmond, Va.: T. C. Williams Company’s tobacco. Petersburg, Va.: Watson and McGill’s tobaccos. Oakland, Cal.: J. Lusk Canning Company’s fruits. Aberdeen: Alex. Milne and Sons’ tinned fish. Salzuflen Germany: Hoffman and Co.’s starch. Genoa: Lucca and Co.’s salad oil. Oporto: Warre and Co.’s port wine. Beaune (Cote d’or): Bourgoin-Jomain Fils’ champagne. Leith: Bernard and Co.’s “Encore” whisky, ginger wine, etc. Cognac: J. Denis, Henry Monnié and Co.’s brandy, Charles Jobit and Co.’s brandy, Prunier and Co.’s brandy, A. L. Boiteau and Co.’s brandy. Rotterdam: Blankenheym and Nolet, “Key” Geneva. Cairo: D. Argyropulo, Weening and Co.’s cigarettes, Dresden, Reichardt and Co.’s pianos. Messina: Fratelli Abate, drained peel, lemons, essential oils, etc. Melbourne: Swallow and Ariell, Limited, treacle, biscuits, etc. Perth: J. Dewar and Sons, Limited, whisky. Adelaide, S.A.: Harrold Bros., Seppelt’s Australian Wines. Christchurch: Rollitt and Co.’s roller flour. Napier: Saunders, Gilberd and Co.’s soap. Hokitika: Paterson, Michel and Co.’s coffee, pepper, spice, etc.
from : The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Vol. 1, Wellington Provincial District, 1897-1908
Rebecca Drolen, “Escape Attempt No.13” from the series “Particular Histories”
David Larsen: Let’s start with the fiction non-fiction distinction. All – nearly all – non-fiction is in some sense fiction. (I can’t make a case for maths text books). All fiction is in some sense non-fiction. But I still have the sense, reading your work, that a wall has been knocked out of my world. One of the questions I wanted to ask the other weekend was “Does Martin Edmond exist?”
Martin Edmond: Good question. The answer is perhaps … sometimes. As a literary identity, the name is what appears on the front of a book, and on the spine, and also in catalogues, programs, advertisements and all the other paraphernalia of a literary life. At live events, the name is represented by an actual person who shows himself able to walk and talk and hopefully even engage with an audience.
Whether that literary identity is the same as the person who writes the books is another question I think. A much more difficult one. I have a sense of anonymity when I write, or rather, a lack of identity that is trying to cross over into something that is real, that really exists. It seems clear that this attempt will always fail, or fail again and again, and that’s one reason why I have to keep going.
But there’s another even more intriguing aspect, which is that a name, any name, is both a fiction (a given name) and a fact. We name a child and that name comes to represent that person, they grow into it, they inhabit it, they play with it, nickname it, conjure it into existence in all sorts of extravagant ways … but it also appears on official records with all the dire factual consequences officialdom promises. Like hearing the doom of your name called out in a court of law, there’s nothing fictional about that.
I remember, years ago, after a gig at The Last Resort in Wellington, meeting someone from one of my old schools, Huntly College. She was younger than me and had a view derived partly from that and partly also from the fact that I had some local notoriety as the headmaster’s son. She kept saying, over and over, in disbelief: Are you Martin Edmond? And of course, the more she said it, the more unlikely it seemed.
One final point: my initials contract to make the word ME, which has always seemed strangely alienating. As if ‘I’ and ‘my name’ are really two different entities. And that lurking behind both there’s a third that is somehow more real but at the same time unnameable.
DL: Rich possibilities for discussion here. Initially I’d like to focus in on two ideas. First, the obsession you refer to in Luca Antara, when you say of your interest in precontact societies, “I wanted to know what it was like to become wholly other” : is that similar to the desire to create a literary identity – a self other than the self who sits at the keyboard?
Second, I’ve just referred to the “you” of Luca Antara as if it were unproblematically the “you” I’m addressing in this email. It’s hard to avoid…. what’s your relationship to that identity now?
There’s a moment in LA and/or Waimarino County (that’s to say, located somewhere in my own “recent Martin Edmond” mental construct; since I can’t find them at present, it’s possible I’ve invented them) where you (“you”) talk about the way in which the past and present are reinvented moment by moment inside our heads. I’m imagining that the relationship between your current self and the alternative selves laid down between the pages of your books must be quite complex, and quite different from the relationship I have with my own former selves… which for the most part exist only in my memory now, and are as much aspects of my current self as anything else.
ME: Many years ago I heard myself to say to someone I was with: I’ve finally become a complete animal. And in that instant feeling suddenly very afraid. I hadn’t known that was what I was trying to do, though retrospectively it’s pretty obvious I was courting insanity. A kind of unconscious deregulement. The fear I felt at that moment was acute and stayed with me over the next few months, during which I had a kind of nervous breakdown. And then slowly put myself back together again. It was in that period, 1974 in Wellington, getting myself together again, that I started to learn how to become a writer.
So I guess in a way I do know what it is like to become wholly other, at least in the sense of starting to lose my mind. Not something I’d ever want to have happen again, it is truly terrifying seeing all the reference points, all the certainties, slip away. Or rather, accelerate away at a great rate of knots. But the context of the statement in Luca Antara is different, that involves a notion that you could understand what it was like to become decultured to such an extent that you lose even the language you grew up speaking. Like Jean Cabri did. It was a hangover from Romanticism, a sense of there being a wholeness lacking in our culture, a unity, a complete world view, that unbroken cultures hadn’t yet lost. The trouble is, to accomplish such a translation, you’d have to lose not just the self that desired transformation but also the faculty that could observe the transformation.
One way of doing that temporarily is the shamanic experience, the spirit voyage into the zone of the gods, during which those powers would instruct you. That’s why the shamanic journey is different, because it can be experienced, and has been, and then you can come back from it; indeed, you are expected back from it. In time for tea perhaps. Some of the drug and alcohol taking that we did was consciously seeking experiences like that. Sometimes we even did have those experiences.
The second part of your question, my relationship now to the ‘you’ or ‘I’ in Luca Antara has some connection to this, because I can’t really say anything much about the writing of that book beyond a few rather mundane external facts, you know, where and when and how it was written. And the reason I can’t is because it was a kind of possession that has passed without leaving any trace apart from the book itself. I remember how I was completely involved in writing it, to the extent that the hours after finishing work one day and before starting the next were immense and dull, while the time actually spent working seemed briefer than a thought. The point wasn’t really to construct a literary identity, it was to project myself into other spaces, other times, other minds, and it didn’t matter if it was my own personal past or the past inhabited by the Portuguese in Malacca. Or indeed the spacetime of the travel I did that’s recounted at the end of that book.
It is quite a strange phenomenon in a way, a kind of spirit journey in itself, writing a book like that. Many kinds of writing, and of other forms of making, do seem to involve a willed or unwilled abnegation of the self, an abandonment that allows something else to manifest. But afterwards, like I say, there’s nothing much left, just a book that I can’t really read, though I do hope that other people can. So I suppose, to answer your question, the self in that book seems now to me to have been a mere instrument, a vessel, a reed.
DL: But there I think you’re talking about the self who wrote the book, rather than the self who was created or recorded within it. That latter self – the Martin Edmond I first met, before I met the one I’m now addressing – may be inaccessible to you in a different way, the way that creations often do seem to be empty to their creators. But he’s still there, to be met… whereas the person who put him there is down the river and gaining speed.
Is it useful to ask about the different Martin Edmonds you see looking out at you from your different books, and what it’s like being the Martin Edmond they’re all looking at? This is really what I was asking before, and I suspect it may be the wrong question…
Another wrong question, because you’ve more or less said already that it’s unanswerable: what is that willed abnegation of the self like? I ask the way a Catholic priest… or perhaps a eunuch… might ask someone to describe orgasm: but I ask all the same.
ME: Well, the different selves in the different books – this might be a naive answer but I think of them as being (aspects of) the same person and that’s just me. In the same way you spoke earlier about your former selves “… which for the most part exist only in my memory now, and are as much aspects of my current self as anything else.” I wouldn’t put it any differently.
Of course mine are not just in memory, they’re in the books as well. So I suppose I have been engaged in the construction of a literary identity or persona but the crucial thing for me is that it’s not a self-conscious or deliberate construction, it’s made out of the detail of whatever I happen to be writing about at the time. If I thought about it in a deliberate way I’d kill it, I think.
On the other hand, odd things do happen, someone will quote something back at me from one of my books and I’ll be astonished at the thought that I’d written that. So it is a bit more complex perhaps. A woman who’d just read Chronicle of the Unsung asked me what the difference was between loving sex and sexual love, which I’d said in that book that I’d learned. And in trying to answer her I found that I didn’t really have a clue what the difference was. So why had I written it? Was it just because I liked the way it looked on the page?
Willed abnegation of self … it seems to me that in order to accomplish a piece of writing I have to somehow leave myself out of it. I had this experience recently, had a yen to write a piece on my blog, knew more or less how it started, rehearsed the first couple of sentences in my head a few times then sat down to tap it out. At a certain point thought, where the hell is this going? … and then, it’s hard to describe, but at that very moment of asking I just kind of sat back and let the words go where they wanted to. To the point where it came to the last word but that word wasn’t there. And then I picked up a book I bought recently, Hartrampf’s Vocabularies, and in the course of looking up the spelling of a word I’d already used, mysterium, found the one I hadn’t. Nebulium. A great word and one I never knew before. It’s a hypothetical element that’s now thought not to exist. A ghost haunting the periodic table perhaps.
The thing is, you can’t compel experiences like that, all you can do is let them happen. I mean prepare a space or a time or a consciousness in which they can happen. And to do that you seem to need to stop the critical mind or the inquiring intellect or whatever it is that always wants to intervene … from intervening.
DL: My reason for asking about this goes back to a line in Luca Antara: “It was clearly a fiction of some kind, but what kind?” You ask that regarding the text which may be Henry Klang’s creation, or may be his redaction of da Nova’s text.
But it, and Henry Klang, and everything else in the book could also be your own creation. I couldn’t think of a way of asking about this at Going West which didn’t amount to a request for you to pin the book down in ways that would do it damage – “please, Mr Edmond, could you dispense with all that clever ambiguity now?”
I still can’t, so I don’t want to talk about whether someone following you around for the last twenty-odd years would have observed all the events you chronicle in LA, or some of them, or none of them. (Though it’s a stimulating notion). I suppose my question about differing versions of yourself was really an attempt at finessing this: in other words, I was asking what you have to let go of, in order to treat your own life as literary raw material.
Ambiguity is one thing I like very much about Luca Antara: in particular, the way the book revivifies phantom histories like the idea of the Chinese landing at Ruapuke and the drowned civilisation of Sundaland. It doesn’t ask us to pass judgement on the ideas, it just opens out a kind of historical phase space in which all these possibilities have room to exist, the way multiple meanings coexist within the words Luca Antara. It’s very gracefully done… at Going West you talked about melancholy being an open state of mind. (I’d asked you to comment on the way the word, to my eye, recurs notably often in your writing). I’m still turning that idea over in my mind, and I wonder now if you would say that melancholy and ambiguity have this in common: that they allow you to experience the world as more full of possibilities than you otherwise might.
ME: The kinds of fiction that Klang’s creation might have been should be understood to include non fiction, which as you noted is a kind of fiction. It is more difficult to say that fiction is a kind of non fiction, though that too may be possible. I think this is a central ambiguity of literary writing, excepting poetry, where for some reason the question doesn’t arise. Poetry is also the primary mode of writing, and of the oral composition that precedes it. It’s fascinating to think this question – is it true? – might not have been asked before a certain time, which may be around the time of Plato. Those older texts, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, don’t ask it. They take their truth as a given.
What do you have to let go of to treat your own life as raw material? Most of it, I would say. Almost all of real life can’t make it into a book, because it’s mundane, or because it’s incommensurable or perhaps just because nobody wants to know the proliferation of detail that makes up any life: it’s too much like their own. So what gets projected in a literary version of the self is the shadow side, the possible versions, the maybes. The voyaging self that tries to measure itself against the unknown, to span the abyss, to cross over into eternity. The part of us that is open to the mythic dimension of the human soul in its quest to become more than what it’s so far been.
I like phantom histories because they operate against received versions. And it always seems to me that if we can open up the past to other interpretations, then we can also open up the present and the future in the same way. And maybe find a path away from our present dilemmas. To say that those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it is also to suggest that a unitary history, a monolithic history, an official history is one that leads to repetition. The nightmare that James Joyce was trying to awake from.
I hadn’t thought about the relationship of melancholy to ambiguity before. I don’t think I suffer from the black choler, in which everything seems futile and meaningless. Like Hamlet, who is ill from an excess of imagination. A four or five hundred year old version of the humour. My understanding of melancholy might be that it involves a contemplation of possibilities, not all of which are realiseable in fact, or in the real world. Maybe of infinite possibilities. All possible worlds can’t exist for time-locked humans, but they are available to the imagination. So, the imagination of possibilities is always going to come along with a sense of their ultimate impossibility. Which is melancholy. You see something enough to know it, but not far enough to be it. There was no world left to find was how Alan Brunton expressed it, speaking of the moment when the age of discovery was over, the globe had been spanned.
Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is the ur-text of this kind of feeling. Bernardo Soares, an assistant book-keeper in Lisbon, can project himself into the vastness of space or time, or into the consciousness of anyone he sees passing in the street below; but he can’t actually be there, or be them, and quite often feels that his imagination of the possibilities precludes an actual embrace of them. That’s the central ambiguity of the melancholic. And yet, when you read that infinite book, you do actually, mentally, become implicated in all those dream moments that Soares has and doesn’t have, the dreams that he lives and can’t live. And so in one sense you do have them.
Someone who had just read Luca Antara emailed me to say that what I suffered from is probably Labyrinthitis rather than Mal de Debarquement – she meant the ear infection related in the last section of that book but initially I read it existentially. Because the ambiguities that a melancholic suffers are labyrinthine; what’s not always appreciated is that there is pleasure in being beguiled in this way, and that often the act of reading is precisely such a beguilement. And that, I guess, makes writing the act of constructing a labyrinth. So you don’t want it to be a simple maze with an entrance and an exit and a few turns in between: you want to advance the possibility of being truly lost, of seeing things never before seen, of there being no way out, or of there being an infinity of ways out.
DL: Against that notion of proliferating possibilities – inexhaustible, unfathomable, inviting, quietly alienating – can I throw up the other word that kept tapping my shoulder as I read Luca Antara: “doomed”. You apply it to so many different lives and ways of living. It suggests the very opposite of openness. Grim finality, or finality at least. Black choler, or something else?
Another word I wanted to ask you about, which seems equally forbidding, though in quite a different way, is “greatly”, as Pessoa uses it of Shakespeare: “The gods gave him all great gifts but one; the one they gave not was the power to use those great gifts greatly…” There’s something in this which has the same closed feel as the idea of a correct or official understanding of history, as though greatness had a specific shape, into which a writer has to fit at whatever cost, or else fall short of themselves.
ME: Some words are interesting at a purely sonic level and doom is one of those. But some words get overused, for example, perhaps. And perhaps doom as well. On the other hand … I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, specifically my parents discussing it in hushed tones after dinner. It was my introduction to the crisis mentality of international affairs in our time. That spoke, and speaks, doom, on a more or less daily basis and you can’t avoid grappling with it. Nuclear war, global warming, over population, pollution, various plagues like AIDS or bird flu, they come and go as bogeymen do and it’s very difficult to arrive at a sober or objective sense of how bad things really are. Doom as a word is related to the verb to do, to the past participle form, done. It signifies something that is completed, that is over, pronounced. The zero option of the suicide. I think you’re right to suggest it is the opposite of openness.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was late in 1962 and early the next year we left Ohakune. I remember this as a specific event, with an actual image. It’s in one of the books, the one about my father I think. It was the beginning of melancholy because the thought I had was that I’d never be truly happy again. It was like seeing the unitary life we’d had up until that time shattered and gone, never to return. That, in a biographical sense for my family, was true, the family fell apart after that, though how I knew this at the time I’m not sure. That precognition kids have on an emotional level perhaps. What I didn’t realise until later was that even though the paradise of my boyhood was lost, at the same time multiple possibilities leaked in to what had been up to then a fairly uniform kind of existence.
Greatness as a concept arrived a couple of years later and I recall that quite clearly too, in my mind it was related to sporting achievement and I even had a little song I used to sing that celebrated greatness. It was probably linked to the arrival of hormones, that adolescent chemical stew that makes us sprout in all sorts of directions. For one summer I was convinced that sporting greatness was my destiny, much to the amused derision of my sisters. Then it passed and I entered the confusions of teenage years. It seems now that there are two aspects to greatness, one is about ego gratification and deserves all the derision it might get, the other is to do with real achievement, with making a contribution as someone once expressed it. Clearly, in the second instance, greatness can’t be achieved unless enough of your fellow humans concur.
But Pessoa’s formulation is interesting because he does concede an ultimate greatness to Shakespeare, whom he calls the greatest failure in literature. Great comes from the same root as gross, it means taking up a lot of space, that specific shape you mention might be anything so long as it’s large. And there is something of the gigantic in talents like Shakespeare, the range and quality of whose work seems scarcely believable, so much so that people keep trying to suggest someone else wrote it. Pessoa’s irony is exquisite, because he was himself, self-consciously, a failure, his entire opus he called Fictions of the Interlude, which he then failed to complete. The only one of his works to fall outside Fictions was The Book of Disquiet, which was found after his death in his trunk written on thousands of separate sheets of paper which may have been in order, but we’ll never know because someone went through them before realising there might have been an order there. You can hear Fernando’s ghost laughing at that particular confusion, which can’t ever be repaired. It still isn’t clear what among his writing does or does not belong in The Book of Disquiet. So he was a great failure too, rivalling Shakespeare.
But I think notions of greatness these days are irrelevant, because they are predicated upon the judgment of a future that won’t occur. I mean either we have no future or, if we do, it will be otherwise than we think. I saw Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, the other day, a fine documentary, and among the many things that came unheralded out of an excellent soundtrack was Joe’s voice saying, apropos of nothing or everything: … exemplary manners towards your fellow human beings. That’s a kind of ordinary greatness, if you can achieve that.
DL: I’ve just been reading Chronicle, & re-read Luca. You’re right, “perhaps” is a signature word. Sometimes it seems a way of dodging responsibility for a judgment which you nonetheless allow yourself to make; sometimes it lets you acknowledge the provisional nature of most knowledge. (All knowledge?) (Perhaps?)
ME: Some years ago I forbade myself the use of “of course” in writing unless it was absolutely unavoidable. This was because it seemed to imply a kind of coterie that included the author and some readers but excluded others; and when I used it in writing it often felt merely redundant. I have wondered about similarly sequestering “perhaps” but decided not, or not yet, basically for the reasons you cite: it does allow the ambiguity of both making and disavowing a judgment, but more important it acknowledges the provisional nature of things. And that means it becomes an agent towards keeping things open, and an opposing force to the doom that marks finality. Or, fashionably, closure.
But you do have to be aware of things that can become empty mannerisms. I think it was William Faulkner who came up with the advice that you have to murder your darlings, that is, excise those words, phrases, sentences that you love too much and use too often. On the other hand, there’s a wonderful discussion in one of Borges’ essays where he analyses some passages of Shakespeare to demonstrate a richness in English that derives from its possession of synonyms from, on the one hand Anglo Saxon, and on the other the Latinate languages. One thing I always labour over, especially in revision, is synonyms: I dislike unthinking repetition of words and have even refused to read well-known and much praised works because they repeat words in the opening sentences.
Repetition on a larger level can become a problem once you start to accumulate a body of work. I remember Phil Clairmont, in interview, suddenly pausing and saying that he’s repeating something he said once before in another interview. And, in that great backlash against his work in the last five years of his life, one of the consistent accusations was that he was repeating himself. Interestingly, although he was certainly aware of the problem, indeed hyper aware, he didn’t think that was the case. But he might have seen nuances his critics missed. Repetition is death, someone said, and yet on the other hand it’s also life, at least in the mundane sense. We do the same things over and over again.
The last time I took LSD, about ten years ago now, I remember thinking wearily as the acid started to work: “Oh, no … not this again. Five, six hours of this … ” As if there were no more insights to be gained from the drug. But later, I did have a thought that has remained with me. It was night, and we were walking out around some rocks to a small beach beyond and I was in a hurry to get there. And then I thought, what am I hurrying towards? It must be death. That my compulsive impatience was in some sense a rushing towards death and that it made more sense just to slow down and let things happen.
And this loops back around to “perhaps”, which has in it both the idea of things happening and also the notion of chance: by means of chance might be one way of paraphrasing it. And for the chance event to occur, for serendipity to happen, you have to be wide-awake and aware of peripherals and also somehow slow. Whereas “of course” seems to rush over the event, to bury it in hurry.
DL: So when you write, then, you’re attempting to open yourself to chance – to work through happenstance; to work per haps. That would be another way of describing your willed self-abnegation, I think. That makes the issue of repetition across your body of work an interesting one: presumably any unchosen repetition which occurs could be described either as a success or a failure of the method.
But what about chosen repetition? Beyond the obvious – you choose to write; you choose to write in English; you choose to write on and around the faultline between fiction and non-fiction – how would you describe the territory you keep coming back to?
ME: One thing I learned from painters, from watching painters paint, is that the work happens in the actual moment of making, at a point where there’s no before and after, only now. That’s one of the intoxications of writing, that effective banishment of time. But you can turn it another way and say that the track you lay down when first writing something down can and does operate to exclude other possible paths. I’m very aware of this right now, when I’m thinking about another book: the way a first draft, while hopefully the making of something new, is also the cancellation of a myriad, even an infinity of other possible versions. I’ve had the experience of thinking, oh no, that’s not quite right, never mind, I can fix it up later. And then you can’t. Because of that fatal exclusion of possibilities that writing must inevitably accomplish. I think that’s why some writers love performance, because in performance you can always make it over again as a new thing; but books aren’t like that, they aspire towards the definitive.
So that performative aspect to writing is vital, the banishment of time, the making of something that hasn’t existed before, and a part of that is not knowing what you’re going to say. I usually have a general sense of where I’m trying to get to but not a detailed map of the terrain to be covered along the way, and in picking a path to that notional destination, that’s when the surprises occur. The small or great detours, the unexpected vista, the accident that sends you tumbling into space, the nerveless exhaustion of not being able to go on when you have to go on – all that. And even sometimes ending up in a completely different place from the one you thought you were going to. The analogy with going for a walk or climbing a hill is explicit and useful, and afterwards, in the redrafting or editing process, that’s wandering back over the same ground in a more reflective state. But it’s obviously necessary to keep an open mind so as not to get bushed or go the wrong way; and one of the dangers is the tedium of ending up trapped in a place where you’ve been before.
I like to think I light out for different parts of the territory in different inquiries. The Clairmont book was intensively inward, interior, psychological, trying to make a way through the darkness within. It was psychically exhausting and often fearful, but I did find some kind of path (not the path) through that thicket of meaning and non-meaning. The book I hope to write next is also about a painter but it’s completely different, it’ll be based on an actual journey, a road trip, or else on secondary sources, most of which are scanty and remote. And one of the peculiar things about it, from this vantage, is how lacking in inwardness the subject seems to be. I want to deal with the interior of Australia, which is always referred to as the Outback, and with a subject, a man, whose entire existence seems to have consisted of outwardness, his acts and appearances and works in the world, his public life. He must have had an interior life but it’s remote and inaccessible and apparently empty as some of the country I’ve just driven through. And in that country you’re constantly seeing mirages, it’s delusive in its essence, appearing as it isn’t. Someone told me recently you can’t photograph a mirage, because it’s an act of the mind imposing ‘sense’ on a ‘senseless’ perception. It’s really not there. That’s interesting.
It might be that I’m drawn to material that hasn’t been traversed before, not in any epic or exclusive sense, just to places and parts, of both the world and the psyche, that I haven’t been to, that I’m not familiar with. That seems to me a worthwhile endeavour because it’s at least possible I’ll find something new or different to say. On the other hand, to return to Borges, he has that late story of extremity, a man who found out that all his works amounted to a self portrait that he glimpsed only at the moment of his death. The escape from repetition, the escape from solipsism, turns out to be an illusion; on the other hand, self portraiture is fascinating, it relies on multiple perspectives, the seer and the seen as one and the same and yet different, doubled – even tripled, if you think of subject/rendition/observer as a kind of triumvirate. And then there’s a fourth thing, the work itself, that remains once all the others have gone.
DL: How much control do you need to exert over a first draft? Is this the stage at which you have the most freedom, or the least? The analogy of a physical journey suggests that once you’ve found a path, you can walk back along it and branch off, but the basic continuity of the work has been established and can’t easily be changed.
It’s particularly strange, in this context, to think of you driving into the Australian interior in order to write about a man with no obvious inner life.
ME: First draft is when you have the most freedom but that freedom diminishes as you proceed, or hurtle, towards the singularity of an end. I’m mostly disappointed with the endings I’ve managed so far to reach, they don’t seem to have enough of the rest of the book in them to be really satisfying. Something to work towards. But the way of writing has to be by indirection. Frank Moorhouse talks about the discipline of indiscipline, which I understand to mean that you have to exert formal control over what you’re doing at a fairly basic level – syntax, punctuation, the mechanics of constructing sentences and paragraphs – while at the same time leaving the mind free to ramble over the material, or the terrain ahead, or anything really. Otherwise you might reach an end before you’ve finished. There’s a feeling of panic I can remember having come to sometimes, when the next sentence isn’t implied in the one you’ve just written, you’ve got nowhere to go, you’ve stopped. Terrible feeling.
We all have an inner life, it’s just the ways in which it is made apparent can differ radically from age to age. I’m trying to look at the mid 19th century, where the culture seemed particularly, or peculiarly, outward. Outback might be just the place to find its secrets or clues. Can you derive an interior life from action in the world? Or from paintings and drawings that are explicitly meant to describe the externals of the world? But every made thing leaves traces of the personality or preconceptions of the maker and in that sense it may be possible to work back from world to psyche, from the objective to the subjective. Without forgetting the impossibility of another, later observer leaving behind his or her own preconceptions. I heard an expression recently I didn’t know, it was a woman who began her sentences: “Luck happens … “, meaning something like: “As luck would have it … ” Luck happens, I may be able to reach some kind of insight into a gone person, a gone world.
DL: Endings are a particularly interesting idea for someone who works more intuitively than schematically. The non plus ultra of endings would be Tolkien’s, I suppose: you spend 1000 or so pages getting your material to converge on a single point, and then you recapitulate, and then you tie up loose threads, and then, many thousands of words later, you dot the i’s and cross the t’s and write your final sentence. The temptation to mock this very drawn out e.n.d.i.n.g. process was not widely resisted when it came time to review the movie adaptations…
And yet Tolkien worked as much intuitively as he did schematically; part of the reason The Lord of the Rings took 15 years to write is that he never quite knew what was going to happen next, and had to feel his way, very often finding that he’d “reached an end before he’d finished”. The comparison between his work and yours is not an immediately obvious one to make, and I initially resisted it because it’s been so faddish for New Zealanders to make Tolkien references lately; but the idea of writing as a journey towards a necessary but unspecified destination does call him to mind.
When you feel that sense of panic and loss of forward momentum, what do you do?
ME: Go for a walk.
The Tolkein comparison wouldn’t have sprung to my mind either, but I did read him when I was younger. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We had a three volume hardback set of LOTR that I read when I was eleven or twelve. It was an interesting experience, I was entranced; but when I came to re-read the books not very much later, I found to my dismay that the images and emotions I’d taken away from the first reading were somehow no longer there and otherwise irrecoverable. It was very strange, I can still recall some of those initial impressions, which I must have brought to the books rather than taken from them. I re-read the trilogy three or four more times in early adolescence, looking for that lost first reading, not finding it, with the result that the books are now so completely emptied of magic for me that I feel revulsion if I so much as pick up a copy. I never thought of any of those landscapes as resembling New Zealand landscapes though, to me Middle Earth was always an imaginary place. Still is.
I’m not really a narrative writer, although I do try to keep some story threads going; what you get with Tolkein I think is that it’s only story, there’s really nothing else going on. A lot of science fiction has the same problem. Thrillers, too. It’s a problem that can be overcome but often isn’t. So the characters conform to type, and the narrative outcomes also conform to type eg it’s inconceivable that the hero will die, though some of the minor characters might. Rather than trying to tell a tale, I’m trying to elaborate upon a thought, or a process of thinking, that has an emotional dimension and might even show some transformative power. The best fiction also does this, it involves intellect and emotion and also what is sometimes called soul. And the best ending is one that is replete with all of the thematics that you’ve tried to evoke throughout a book, that echoes them, and resolves them, and yet leaves certain questions open as well. Very hard to do.
DL: Can you elaborate on the idea that poetry is the primary literary form?
ME: I think it’s just the fact of the oral culture preceding the written one. If things were to be remembered, and handed on, there had to be some kind of patterning, and that was provided by beats, rimes, the use of stock phrases, epithets and so forth. It’s repetition again! I re-read The Odyssey earlier this year, and I’ve been picking up and putting down The Epic of Gilgamesh for most of this year: they’re redundant texts the way the brain is a redundant system, many paths to the same end. So when these much remembered and often repeated works were first written down, they were as if transcribed from a spoken performance; maybe they were actually transcribed: we don’t know how those early texts were composed, but it’s at least possible that there was a scribe who chiselled down what a performer spoke: you know, can you repeat that bit about Utanapishtim, the Faraway? Or many scribes: Gilgamesh was so popular they’re still finding bits of cuneiform with verses on it here and there, and in different languages too. And, just as performances today vary from night to night, so they must have varied then; and it must have been accepted. The notion of a definitive text could only have come into being once writing existed and it quickly evolved, over a not very long period of time, to something like the Koran, which is sacred in and of itself as well as being true in every particular.
And then there’s what we call myths and legends, that I read an enormous number of when I was younger, all the time, the Greek myths but lots of others too. By the time I got to them, 1950s or early 1960s, it was quite clear to everyone that these tales were not true, they were made up, symbolic, they expressed other meanings than those supposed by the people who told them. In other words, they were fictions. But they weren’t fictions for those who told and retold them, or only latterly were they fictions. And they didn’t read like fictions to me as a child either. It’s schizoid, they’re both true and not true, depending on who you are, the position you take. The same thing happened when the Europeans spread out over the world. Maori, like all indigenous peoples, were told their stories weren’t true, they were folk tales, only the Bible was true … which itself was just another folk tale. Not even a European folktale, either, it was from the Middle East too.
There’s an interesting moment, it arrives just post Aristotle and comes out of the Macedonian court a generation after Alexander the Great. A mythographer called Euhemerus wrote a Sacred History in which he speaks of a place called Panchaea. It was somewhere down in the Indian Ocean and there was a pillar on the island upon which the genealogies of the gods were inscribed. This is at the same time that Alexander’s general Ptolemy and his descendants in Egypt were being deified, while Euhemerus was saying that the gods have a real origin, they used to be kings and heroes, they are close to us, if they are not an actual invention of ours. The Sacred History is lost and survives only in fragments but it appears to have been the first Utopia, the first attempt to critique a society by imagining another place which is both like and unlike it. So, it told the truth by telling of an invention, but it did it self-consciously. You weren’t meant to believe in Panchaea the way devout Muslims believe in the Paradise of the Martyrs. You were meant to understand it as a story that wasn’t true but nevertheless had meaning. Rather than being meaningful because it was true.
DL: Interesting. I’d taken you to be saying something about the intrinsic nature of language – poetry as the pure verbal form of which prose is in some sense a dilution, or from which it departs. But your point is historical, and to a degree contingent; a different course of history might have thrown up different understandings of the truth of a poem. Documentary poetry, journalistic poetry: poetry which we might judge by some literary approximation of the scientific method.
Your account of poetry’s actual history – our “real” history, and there’s an interesting phrase – makes a lot of sense: presumably, in a purely oral tradition, you’ll always end up with multiple versions of any long poem, and a tolerance for conflicting stories will evolve seamlessly into a taste for them. I’m wondering if this relates at all to Pessoa’s ability to generate, or to host if you like, a range of voices and viewpoints; I’m also wondering if you were ever conscious, as a teenager or young adult, of having lost that ability to read something as both true and not true, or whether it’s always been an available mode of thought for you.
ME: Well, I think that Pessoa was quite conscious of enacting the whole of his country’s history via the voices he conjured. He knew himself to be the late, irretrievably lapsed, conduit for the voices of the Portuguese nation and empire, and behind that you can sense the Roman empire that came before and sometimes even get a feeling of all human empires, even future ones. He could probably only channel all those extraordinary voices because he knew the empire was over, that all empires carry within them their own destruction. He was a kind of neutered character himself and it’s a sort of ventriloquism of the defunct that he practiced: because he was no-one he could be everyone. In amongst his writings you do find an amazingly sophisticated literary and emotional intelligence, one that seems capable of replaying all the nuances of any kind of literature. He’s universal in that way, as Borges, another neuter, is in a different way.
I wasn’t really conscious of anything much as a teenager and a young adult – more a mass of conflicting neuroses and insecurities looking for some kind of certainty of identity in the world. Insofar as I was able to think about it at all, I thought that poetry was the way to go, that being or becoming a poet would resolve my neuroses and insecurities and I don’t think at that stage truth or untruth had much to do with it. It was all about appearance. This went on for most of my twenties and thirties, even though I was also doing other things, being in Red Mole, starting to learn how to write screenplays. It was a very private struggle, because I hardly ever sought to publish anything, almost never showed my work to anyone. Didn’t talk about it with anyone either. And then, at a certain point, I began to understand the problem was with the form I’d chosen to write in, that the poetry lacked authenticity, lacked merit. Eventually, and this took quite a long time, I mustered up the courage to decide to stop writing it. I’ve held to that.
The interesting thing about all that now, looking back, is that poetry doesn’t recognise a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. It is involved with truth and untruth, but in a different, more philosophical way perhaps. I’m not sure. So when I started writing prose in the early 1990s I did it from a point of view, using a technique or set of techniques formed in two decades of trying to write poetry. I wasn’t aware that this might translate into an advantage of some kind, or that it might make my prose writing peculiar in some way – if indeed it does. I was just so happy to find a fluency. To be able to write fluently was such a great gift after all those crabbed years of writing verse that I didn’t inquire too much where it came from, and I still don’t. But it’s certainly true that now, when I read, I’m much more inclined to enjoy those works that don’t labour the distinction between documentary and other kinds of truth. I do like things that can be true and not true at once. They seem to have more breadth and more depth, though they may be lacking in height.
DL: The phrase true and not true at once counterpoints intriguingly with the idea of your poetry lacking authenticity. So you were initially driven to write in a form which was in some sense not true to your experience or your voice, and eventually found your way to a form which is both. Allowing you to be true to yourself, while disregarding truth as a primary criterion.
This is just me playing games with the ambiguities implicit in the word “true”, but I’m still curious to know what authentic would have meant for you, at the point where it was something you felt you lacked.
ME: I don’t know if there is an objective measure of authenticity. It may be a felt thing. Although we sometimes call other’s work, as well as our own, inauthentic. For me it was about the inability of things I wrote to settle into a shape that I was happy with. That I could let be. It’s said there’s a virtue in mutability, a work is never finished, only abandoned, but mine was inherently unstable in all of its parts – why this and not this? It could always have been different. By which I mean it was sadly itself, i.e. not much. Maybe it’s to do with the work being an approximation, or imitation, of other experiences, other voices. That’s a natural process of learning but for me it was prolonged. I had a very long apprenticeship. You know when it’s time to let something go and it was never that time, until one day I let it all go and started again. I don’t mean that what I write now is impeccable, only that there comes a point when I know it’s ready to leave. And I spent about twenty years never getting to that point. I wasn’t alone in that opinion, whenever I did send that earlier work out to editors, it was generally not accepted for publication.
DL: We’ve talked about several different kinds of ambiguity now, or perhaps one might call them complexity. I’m curious about the relationship between the kind of instability you experienced as an apprentice or journeyman writer, with lots of different voices echoing around you and no right path to follow, and the more positive complexity of your later writing, in which the world is quite another kind of echo chamber, with many possible truths operating as a source of intellectual honesty and enrichment. You suggest in Waimarino County that the bridge between the two was provided by Alan Brunton – “I learned from Alan what makes good writing, and I also learned, more slowly, what it means to live an ethical life; the two are not distinct from each other, I believe”. Can you expand on that a little?
I’m also interested in the notion of primacy you refer to in LA – the “obsession… with finding out who was first, which was earliest, what lies behind”. I’m imagining a long, wide cone, balanced on its tip, the tip being the point furthest away from us in time, and the interior of the cone being the realm of things we can talk about with more rather than less certainty. There are origin tales that fit inside the cone – if you appeal to molecular biology, for instance, as Richard Dawkins does in his origins pilgrimage book, The Ancestor’s Tale – but most of the human origin tales fall outside, in the dark. So the obsession with finding out the real stories at the back of history can’t be allowed to turn into false certainties about what can be known. Is that ever a temptation?
ME: It was from working with Alan over a long period of time that I finally understood that you have to respect the sources of your writing in the same way that you respect other sources. You can’t co-opt material from anywhere, you have to find your own sources, or resources, wherever they may be. They could be deep in your psyche or in an archive somewhere or they might simply be found in your life experience. How you know something is yours to use is difficult to articulate but you have to learn how to recognise it. It’s an instinct but it’s also more than that, an excitement, the activation of antennae – Doris Lessing speaks somewhere of the strange way that, when you begin to research something, all sorts of unbidden yet relevant bits of information start to pop up in front of you and then you know you’re on the right track.
So there’s an ethic about the way you locate and use your sources, your material, and I learned that from Alan, because he was so intolerant of anything he felt to be inauthentic and also because he was so fierce in his fidelity to those things he felt were his. You just couldn’t trespass, although I tried … and tried. And in the end went off to find my own way. I think the same fidelity has to be applied to what you do with your writing: if it is about making something new, then that implies an alteration of the world, howsoever small that might be, and anyone who aspires to change the world has to know what those changes are for, why they need to be made, how. I do think, with my first two books, that motivation was quite clear, they were both about trying to correct what I believed to be an erroneous view of a person in the world. My father, in the first instance, Philip Clairmont in the second. The later ones are probably more about opening things up, trying to make connections rather than corrections.
Murray Bail quotes Colin McCahon saying that in order to paint better, he had to become a better person. That’s quite scary, especially when you take on board the seriousness of the demand and the frailty of the vessel that both made and entertained it. It’s easy to talk about an ethical life but what does that mean in practice? Is it recycling your rubbish? Or not buying products from bad companies? Never disturbing a wild animal? We live in a culture that is in a state of terror about its future, its viability. Most people now are aware that it might be, as someone once said, the end of the experiment. How do we comport ourselves if these are indeed the last days? And how if they are not? It’s medieval in a way, the resort to fundamentalism, the millenarianism of both the secular and the sacred ways of being. What’s the right way to live?
And maybe from that I can segue into the tales that fall outside the cone of light, those that remain in the dark. I like to keep on open mind on the basic questions, and I also like to keep the big questions open. Where do we come from, who are we, where are we going? is how Gauguin expressed it in that great painting of his. If you think you’ve got the right answers to those questions, you’re bound to be wrong. For instance I have grave doubts about the current explanation for the origin of the universe. A Big Bang? Really? As to life on earth, that could have been a spontaneous combustion in a warm, protein rich seas but it could have come via hydrocarbons dropped from a meteor or a comet. Or in a capsule from a defunct civilisation on Mars.
There’s more to be gained from entertaining multiple possibilities than there is from taking an entrenched position and defending it against all comers. And I think that’s true of science as well as what’s called art. And life. We don’t ever really know what’s going on though we are always trying to find out. You go through life with a set of working assumptions that are always changing, but underlying them might be some basic principles: that all life is meaningful might be one, even if we don’t know what the meaning is; that all things have their place in the universe could be another; that consciousness desires increase of consciousness; that evil is about a diminution of possibilities, a restriction of the freedom to be; that nothing lasts forever … not even an interview …
It was a shock this week hearing of the death of Russell Haley; he seemed, if not ageless, then exceptionally durable. I remember the last time I saw him – at the launch of the Alan Brunton selected poems, Beyond the Ohlala Mountains, in Auckland in March, 2014 – he said : I’m eighty! With that reliable yet somehow elfin twinkle in his eye. It must have been on that occasion too that we talked about the relative merits of poetry and prose and he confessed that, where Alan was concerned, he’d always felt an obscure sense of shame at his choice to abandon the one in favour of the other. As if it were some kind of betrayal. Of a shared enterprise I mean. But that Alan had forgiven him – if that’s the word – and their friendship survived. They were very close in the old days. Alan had various sobriquets for Russell: Harry Leeds, Harry the Wank, Harry Lurber, just plain Lurber. The one I like best was Commissioner Haley. It gestures towards Russell’s obsessive interest in military matters and his brilliant re- and de-constructions of post-human, semi-android, mind and body states in the kind of future we are living in now. Which he had somehow foreseen in the poems he wrote and published in the 1970s. I’m thinking of works like ‘Anatomical Models’ in On The Fault Line or ‘Spanish City’ from The Walled Garden. They really shifted our heads around when they first came out, probably in Freed or perhaps one or other of Stephen Chan’s magazines of that time. I was a young acolyte of the Freed poets, so-called, in Auckland in the early 1970s. I wanted – oh how I wanted – to be a poet too. And Russell, in a characteristic act of generosity, did in fact publish my first poem in the last Freed. Called, appropriately enough, Freed At Last. He needn’t have; the poem isn’t up to much; and I suppose I should regret it now – but I don’t. Russell gave me to understand that the fact that I had submitted it was good enough, in his terms, to warrant publication. And it had taken me an enormous effort to pluck up the courage to do so. So the validation that publication gave to my callow ambitions was somehow more important than the work itself; and I have always been grateful for that. Kindness and generosity of the sort Russell consistently showed to younger writers wasn’t especially common back then and probably isn’t that common now either. But it wasn’t unthinking encouragement either. A few years later, in Wellington, 1977 I believe, I had, with a couple of others (Simon Wilson was one of them) edited that year’s Students’ Association Literary Yearbook. A magazine called, pretentiously, Hasard. I remember being hauled over the coals by Roger Robinson, then Head of the English Department at Victoria, for including work by poets not associated with the universities. It was the first time I heard the phrase Town and Gown. There was too much Town in Hasard, Roger said. But there was something much more important. At some kind of gathering in Willis Street one night, full of poets of various descriptions, Russell took me aside for a quiet chat. It was about the poem of my own that we had included in Hasard. It was, he said, flagrantly imitative of Alan’s work (it is); furthermore, if I kept on in that vein, I would find myself in deep shit. Alan’s myth is the West, he said. He’s a gunslinger. If you go up against him, he will shoot you down. There are two things here: I wasn’t really aware that I was imitating Alan and, if Russell hadn’t pointed it out, it might have taken me a lot longer to realise that I was. The second thing is, I didn’t understand the kinds of risks I was taking. Not so much the risk of being gunned down – in fact I ended up working closely with Alan for many years and, although he was never exactly easy on me, he did give me invaluable guidance on the way towards becoming the sort of writer I am. The point is, rather, that without Russell’s warning, none of that would have been possible. It was a crucial re-orientation for me and I still consider it the best piece of writing advice I ever received. So much more apposite, say, than that old chestnut: you must find your own voice. What’s more, he didn’t have to give it. Many would not have done so: because it’s hard to do something like that, it’s hard to tell the truth to a deluded youngster, and it’s hard too to know what the consequences of such truth-telling might be. At that launch in Auckland in 2014, I told Russell how important that conversation had been to me, and I thanked him, somewhat belatedly, for it. (I had been too over-awed to say much at the time.) He laughed. Did I really say that? he said. I don’t remember. Russell had an elegant, lucid mind as well as a kind and generous soul; his spirit was clear and bright, like the transparency you see in the midst of a flame. He was always good company, there was always laughter around when he was there. He could somehow look askance and at the heart of the matter, simultaneously. In the old days, he liked to take off his shirt when he was reading his poems; it was a party trick too; you’d wait for the moment when it happened. People would applaud and Russell would beam as if he’d just done something wonderful. Just the other day a box of slides surfaced in amongst a friend’s things in Bendigo. They were of a Red Mole show in Wellington in 1975: Cabaret Paris Spleen. Russell is in a few of them. That night Commissioner Haley took the stage with the stems of half a dozen arum lilies tucked into the waistband of his trousers. I remember the white flowers with their golden tongues swaying and bowing behind him as he read. It was quite mad but it was also very beautiful. It’s good to have the photos of course; and the poems, the stories, the novels and the excellent book about Pat Hanly that he wrote; but I would much rather we still had the man.
Alan Brunton, Russell Haley, Ian Wedde