Charles Brasch Journals 1945-1957,
Selected with an introduction and notes by Peter Simpson.
Dunedin: OUP (2017).
RRP: $59.95. Hc, 686pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The third and final volume of Charles Brasch’s private journals covers the years from when he was 48 to his death at 64. The volume is selected and introduced by Peter Simpson, a writer, editor, curator and scholar who has taught at universities in New Zealand and in Canada. Simpson was the director of the Holloway Press and a former head of English at the University of Auckland, retiring in 2013.
Charles Brasch was the editor of Landfall, an indispensable part of New Zealand’s literary scene, a highly regarded poet, who published six books, an art collector and a patron and benefactor.
Brasch had many friends in the literary, artistic and intellectual scene. Among them, such luminaries as Sargeson, McCahon, Stead, Baxter and others. Among the contributors to Landfall were some of New Zealand’s most prestigious writers, including Shadbolt, Duggan, O’Sullivan, Tuwhare, Manhire and many more. His accounts of such poets, artists and writers, imbue his journals with fascinating insights into the lives, personalities and work of numerous people.
Another side of this esteemed, poet, editor and intellectual was a sensitive man, who confided in his letters, journals and poetry, the emotional side of his life and his endless search for love. He had deep attachments to both men and women, including Andrew Packard and Margaret Scott. Later in life he had a strong attachment with an elderly Jewish emigre, Moli Zimmerman.
Brasch’s journals are quietly spoken and beautifully made. This is an unassuming, life-affirming work. The journals gain our attention long after they were written, a product of the author’s mastery of form and language, of rhythm and line, and his refusal of artifice in thought and language, his commitment to the spirituality of everyday speech. These are evocative, hard-won, interesting thoughts, mature and youthful at once, in which his life, his secrets, his inner life, become part of New Zealand’s literary heritage. You’ll find here reflections on work, life and love, of experiences garnered, of adult days, honest and urgent meditations on solitude and friendship, on art and literature and on life as a work of art.
The writing is similarly varied: dramatic and concrete, abstract ad philosophical, archaic and contemporary. The work is political and personal, recalling memories of friends and family. The address is one of intensity and engagement, of a figure in the world and of the world, of a personality that tells how things are now, how they once were and how they might be. In this enterprise, the personal is never absent – both in the speaker’s intensity and often in the figures of whom he writes. To take one example, here is how he writes of his grandfather’s death:
Night. Grandfather did not recover consciousness; & after a few hours
of choking breath, as though a dreadful phlegm were boiling in his throat,
at 11 o’clock his wide unseeing eye quietly closed, & without any further struggle he was gone.
A cold pale sunny morning. Emily, Kate, Sister Kirk & I were with him (p 114).
This is a masterly work, of movement inward to a man’s deepest secrets and outwards to transformation and of the minutiae of life. In the following extract, for example, he writes about climbing in the mountains:
Yesterday, cloudy & cool, climbed Ben Lomond; the snows of Earnslaw visible but its outlines lost in cloud, which lay heavy to the north & west. Again we slept out, but rain drove us in at 3 o’clock this morning, & continued, fine & warm, till about midday; slowly the clouds lifted s we came up the lake in the Earnslaw; & by the time we got here (3 hours pretty slow going with heavy packs from the end of the road) the sun was out in a clear sky (p 256).
The discomfort of making the crossing from Lyttleton to Wellington is looked at carefully and without shrinking:
Crossed from Lyttelton to Wellington on Friday night. I used to enjoy this crossing so much, now I almost dread it, because of the crowds (& I saw no single familiar face) & the discomfort – there is no place where one can sit quietly in a good light & read – & because I normally cannot sleep, & I hardly slept at all on Friday night even though was alone in my cabin.
Breakfasted at the station in Wellington, walked the streets for an hour – a grey cool morning – then took the bus to Belmont, to the Bertrams (p 290).
Brasch moves easily and appropriately between the magnificence of the New Zealand scenery, to general situations, personal problems, friends and family and daily life. His writing is always verbally vital and intellectually stimulating. This is committed journal writing at its best, writing that is both angry and hopeful, acerbic and constructive. Brasch is good at the rhetoric of the private and the public and their intersection. He looks at people, events and relationships carefully and with passion and linguistic verve. The journals are a great collection of vital and intelligent writing.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).