The Smell of New Zealand Books

Landfall New Zealand Charles Brasch, Oxford, books
The wonderfully textured paper of the early Landfalls.

Perhaps it’s obvious, from some of the essays I’ve recently posted here, that I’m missing New Zealand. As soon as winter seeped into Oxford my reading turned to home, and I began to spend each evening at the library with piles of books on New Zealand ordered from the closed stacks. (The Bodleian has a good pre-1950 collection of NZ-related books, I think because New Zealand publishers must still have fallen under the legal deposit). I decided not to return home over the Christmas break but instead to travel to Italy, Amsterdam and Berlin—and I took with me the only book from home I could find in time, a copy of the 1960 Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, with Allen Curnow’s famed introduction.

Because I hadn’t brought any books with me from home when I moved here, I also began to buy second-hand books on New Zealand whenever they popped up in bookstores in Oxford or online. The first I bought was a set of the second volume of Landfall, from 1948. They arrived in the mail, I opened them—and the experience was for me the equivalent to the old Proustian Madeleine.

The smell! Immediately, I was back in my grandparents’ living room, foraging in their bookshelves for the not-seen-in-forty-years third-row-deep books. Instantly, it was summer in Wellington with pohutukawa in bloom down the street, and I felt again my fear of getting any sunscreen on the books. Or maybe it was winter, and I was in my Mum’s old villa beside the fire, youthfully dog-earing pages of books that now I think should be kept behind glass. Smelling the covers again now—those peculiarly knobbled, rough covers of the early years of Landfall—all the same memories and feelings flood back.

I remember reading (though cannot find the book here in Oxford to check the quotation) of John Mulgan’s first winter in the UK, and the arrival of a letter from home containing some leaves his parents had clipped from their back garden in Auckland. He described in his diary the feelings and memories they brought back, and the consequent longing for home. Well, my equivalent leaves are the leaves of Mulgan’s Man Alone, and of so many other touchstones of our culture. Their smells make what I’m missing so much more palpable.

But back to Landfall: there was something more to the smell of their pages than simply the knowledge that they were from home, or that the words they contained were significant to me. They smelled like New Zealand, of specifically what I have come to know New Zealand’s culture to smell like. Writing this seems odd, even laughable. Now, when books are digitally printed and publishers source paper from ever more similar (read: cheaper) suppliers, the material differences between books have been so reduced as to be barely worth commenting on. But it wasn’t always like that.

I don’t know if The Caxton Press found their paper in New Zealand (maybe someone can help me on this?), but I do know that the paper Glover and Bensemann printed on—especially their covers!—I haven’t seen or smelled elsewhere. Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s quarterly that Brasch and the others modelled Landfall on in the early days, feels and smells (not to mention looks) cheap in comparison. Partly this may have been war shortages limiting materials; but more likely, I just don’t think the same sense of art was given to their printing as was given to Landfall.

Many important New Zealand books were printed in England (many still are), so this thought of a specific smell to New Zealand books can’t extend too far. Mulgan’s Man Alone was printed at the start of the war in the UK, and few copies even made it to New Zealand. John Beaglehole’s journals of Cook were published by the Hakluyt Society in London. But even then, I wonder if New Zealand dust smells differently, peppering the pages in an air not to be found elsewhere. After all, is the smell books acquire over time not simply the condensed smell of the air in which they live?

I won’t take those thoughts further (smells slip away the moment they’re put in words). But to any friends who catch me awkwardly lifting Landfall too frequently to my nose, let these thoughts suffice as an (admittedly odd) explanation.

Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.