R.H.I. by Tim Corballis.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Sue Wootton.
Tim Corballis is a Wellington-based essayist and fiction writer who has previously published three novels (Below, Measurement and The Fossil Pits). Below won the 2000 Adam Foundation Prize. He held the 2005 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers’ Residency and was the 2015 Writer in Residence at Victoria University. Corballis is interested in the aesthetic qualities of language, and in how multiple ways of telling – of re-presenting – a story can be simultaneously valid. In the two novellas which make up R.H.I., the imagined and the actual flicker side by side, like flames in the same grate. Time, too, has a flickering quality, with present and past merging and separating, appearing and disappearing.
In each story, a New Zealand researcher re-imagines the person who is the subject of his or her research. Both novellas are framed as a kind of human archaeology, a building of a sense of person from archival evidence. The process is self-conscious, with the researcher’s voice intruding into both stories, full of uncertainty, full of questions: “We should ask this: in what way is Joan like us? Why think about this woman?”; “According to what opportunity would a young antipodean traveller have encountered someone like H, have thought about him?” The form superbly captures what Corballis, in his introductory Note, describes as “an expertise of not-knowing”, an attempt to “express some of the confusion and the mess that we encounter in ourselves and in our understanding when… thrown in amongst the chaos of our own lives, we are faced with the distant echo of facts.”
Part one focuses on the eponymous R, a re-creation of real-life Englishwoman Joan Riviere, a “relatively obscure” figure in the history of psychoanalysis. It is the first quarter of the twentieth century, and against the ever-present background of war, R struggles to maintain a sense of personal integrity and a sense of her life’s meaning. R is especially haunted by the slippery concept of time. Her musings constitute a meditation on the relationship between personal memory and the public face of history:
Then, after all, here was time. It arrived, but – strangely – it was early. The world carried on peacefully, but was gripped by war. Her father’s death in 1909. She recognised him in the corpse that lay in the coffin in the front room of the house in Brighton. Things came from all sides: walls and explosions, the whistle of a train …
War broke out in that moment. Or was it five years later? Time was behaving strangely. It was 1909 still, no question, but in the streets, which for all she knew were the same as they had been, there was now a rent, a tear. She looked at the world from a past or a future, as if she were displaced, as if she could see everything around her with either wonder or jaded, dreading familiarity.
The same themes play out in the second novella, H, but where R’s preoccupation is with how to fortify the original self against a torrent of imposed forces, H represents the struggle to build a sweeping new order out of the rubble of the destroyed past. H, the protagonist, is based on another real-life historical figure: Hermann Henselmann, an architect responsible for many imposing post-WW2 buildings in Berlin. Again, the slipperiness of time and the insecurity of our footing within it is powerfully evoked:
What, H wondered, had become of time? It seemed to flow in confused rivulets, now forward as that city lifted itself up off the ground, as it promised something and became something, then backwards again as the city slumped back and became only its buildings – threadbare ones at that. It flowed in different directions is different parts of the city, in different parts, we might say, even of the world – time as a tangle, unsure of itself and its sense of direction.
At first glance the book may seem unwelcoming. The acronym of the title is cold and uninformative, even obstructive, and the subject matter looks difficult, as if an in-depth knowledge of European history will be necessary in understanding the content. But don’t be put off. There’s a useful and interesting Author’s Note to provide context and orientation, and Corballis’ prose is lucid and elegant. This is a richly satisfying book: great ingredients, beautifully distilled, exceptionally well-matured. Sip, savour, enjoy. It tingles right through. It’s all pleasure.
Sue Wootton’s most recent publication is Out of Shape, a letterpress portfolio of poems hand set and printed by Canberra letterpress artist Caren Florance (Ampersand Duck, 2013). She lives in Dunedin and is the editor of the Monday Poem column in the Otago Daily Times. Her website is suewootton.com.