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.

In Myanmar, Learning What is at Stake in Our Travels

In the summer after my freshman year of college I travelled alone through Myanmar. I used as a guide not Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor, but Somerset Maugham’s book The Gentleman in the Parlour, his travel diary of reflections and stories from a trip through Indochina in the early 1920s. I travelled by river, as Maugham did, on a restored Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamship; I visited the sights that he wrote of, and stayed in the same hotel in Rangoon (now Yangon). Along the way I saw Myanmar through Maugham’s eyes, though that doesn’t mean I agreed with his descriptions.

There were surreal moments when I felt as though I was in Maugham’s world entirely, as though not a single thing had changed in the intervening 91 years. In these moments it took something to break the scene for me to realise I lived in a different world to Maugham’s. One evening I sat on the top deck of the ship which was tied up on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Mandalay. I was reading The Gentleman in the Parlour, as I did each day of my trip, but the passages I read that night were of the exact sights and sounds that I presently looked at; his ship might’ve been tied up in the exact spot mine was, and that evening’s weather and sunset seemed identical. As he recorded it: “The sun set on the other side of the river and a red cloud in the west was reflected in the tranquil bosom of the Irrawaddy. There was not a ripple on the water. The river seemed no longer to flow. In the distance a solitary fisherman in a dug-out plied his craft. A little to one side but in full view was one of the loveliest of the pagodas. In the setting sun its colours, cream and fawn-grey, were soft like the silk of old dresses in a museum… It was impressive to reflect that it had stood for so many centuries and looked down impassively upon the smiling bend of the Irrawaddy.” But I’m obliged to add to Maugham’s summary that in the background of this majestic scene were the guffaws of Americans and Australians, along with the perpetual droning of outboards attached to barges. Thousands of famished mosquitoes settled in for a feast despite their hosts’ best efforts to keep them out of the pantry, and a Californian felt the need to show off his camera’s new electronic viewfinder to all passengers nearby. It was thirty-three degrees celsius, the humidity unbelievable, and my clothes still stuck to me after the day’s stroll in Mandalay.

When one reads The Gentleman in the Parlour one can’t help but think that Maugham had the unique ability to never experience anything in his travels that detracted even slightly from a moment’s perfection. But moments when the spell was broken showed me how unlikely it was that that was the reality—only the reality he chose to pass on to his admiring and well-paying readers. Speculation, yes, but surely the mosquitoes were louder and noisier, more vicious, and as Maugham was later to discover, more likely to be carrying malaria. Surely his fellow passengers were equally as obnoxious at the wrong times, and roaming dogs, rabid, frightened him during the last few seconds of an Irrawaddy sunset. I’m not able to believe that Maugham was a traveler immune to every annoyance, perfectly calm and able to take everything as equally beautiful and part of a scene.

If that is true, then he was no different to any of us today. If Maugham were to make a Facebook account (despite the chuckle that image causes) he would fill it with beautiful pictures of himself frowning-smiling, as he did, in front of the sights of the “East”. Drink in hand, he would pose on the sun deck of the Flotilla Company steamer at sunset, next to friends and locals and other glamorous people, thinking of the sighs of awe that his reading public would let out when they see the photo on a foul London day. Travel writing was, in Maugham’s time, an earlier version of the Facebook glamour shot, available to the adventurous and wealthy few. We all engage in Maugham-style omission, projecting only the highlight-reel of our lives, and some seem to relish the thought of friends’ jealousy back home as much as I’m sure Maugham did.

Or perhaps there’s another explanation, which I was only able to see when re-reading Maugham after my trip: that I’m only able to speak of perfection and annoyances—I’m only conscious of them as an idea while traveling—because I view everything through the lens of Maugham’s writing and the perfected photos I’ve previously seen. I’m conditioned to seek out those “perfect” times, as defined by others’ photos and stories, so full of omission. If that is true, then travel is a search for the unattainable: nowhere, at any time, will ever come near to our preconceived notions. And out of fear of being viewed as inauthentic travellers, or unable to admit that the reality did not live up to the vision, we go home to partake in our own omission with curious friends, family, strangers… propagating that irreconcilable chasm between expectation and reality. It is telling that I couldn’t see this while in Myanmar, but only when I left and could look back on myself as a traveller.

I first remember critically reflecting on Maugham’s book that one evening on the top deck of the ship, right after the sun had set and I struggled to believe that Maugham’s descriptions were honest. But it is only recently that I’ve come to critically reflect on my own journey, on myself as a traveller and my use of Maugham as a guide.

I travelled to Myanmar because I wanted to see a country I’d heard so much about, and I used Maugham’s book as a guide because I wanted to view it through an historical lens. But in retrospect perhaps that was a mistake. I viewed the country through an historical lens, yes, but a lens that was so tied up with empire and colonialism that it was almost dangerous. On a separate trip to Phnom Penh in Cambodia I again stayed in a hotel that Maugham had stayed in and which he had written about in The Gentleman in the Parlour. Coincidentally—and these sorts of occurrences are what created my link to Maugham as a writer in the first place—I was placed in the hotel’s “Somerset Maugham suite”. On one level this was exciting, an inexplicable coincidence that left me examining every object in the room for signs of his long-ago presence. But in another sense it was troubling. It sold Maugham’s colonial lifestyle to wealthy travellers who never stepped back to question what it meant for a European traveller to be quite literally buying, for a few days, that life.

Writers often envelop us, holding us tightly when we read lines that cut to the heart of our thoughts and attitudes. These create powerful bonds that can often last a lifetime, and indeed there were aspects of this to the way I read Maugham—his attitudes to his own country while abroad, his patriotism, his descriptions of personalities he liked and disliked. But what I’m realising now is how we become different people through reading, no matter how much we have in common with the authors whose works we read. I’ve now read Maugham in over six Southeast Asian countries, three of them since my trip through Myanmar, and what has been more valuable than that trip to begin with has been seeing how my own attitudes have changed, including my attitude towards my own trip. My journey through Myanmar now seems to me less a grand adventure than merely a continuation of colonial influence and Orientalism in Southeast Asia, the sign of an unreflective teenager succumbing to the lure of pomp and grandiosity in what once seemed a part of the “exotic” “Orient”. Just as Orwell left Burma in disgust at his own role in the dynamics of empire, I too now worry about the systems of ideas and knowledge that led me to consider such a trip, and which blocked me and the other travellers I encountered from seeing the part we were playing in a larger historical narrative. Only now, years after my journey, can I see how Maugham’s version of the Facebook glamour shot kept me, just as it keeps many of us, from seeing what was really at stake in my travels.