Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
charles orwell brasch (1909-73) became known in his lifetime as a gifted poet, and as the founder and editor for twenty years of the New Zealand quarterly, Landfall. He was a notable collector and patron of the arts, and at his death left a valuable collection of books and paintings to the Hocken Library in Dunedin. The only prose work he published, apart from notes and reviews in Landfall, was Present Company, Reflections on the Arts (Blackwood and Janet Paul, Auckland, 1966).* It was known that he had for years kept very full journals, and these — together with his private correspondence — are now deposited under seal in the Hocken Library.
When he gave up the editing of Landfall in 1967, Brasch spent much of the time that remained to him in drafting the long prose memoir of his earlier years to which he gave the title Indirections. This was intended to be both a family and personal 'skein of memory', and a sort of prose Prelude or 'Growth of a Poet's Mind'. As work in progress it was shown to a few close friends, and when illness overtook him late in 1972, he was concerned to bring it to a state he approved for publication, as his own premature Foreword of 1971 indicates. The natural terminal point seemed to be the death of his grandfather, Willi Fels, and the decision taken to launch the periodical Landfall early in 1947.
The manuscript which came to Charles Brasch's literary executor, Mr Alan Roddick of Invercargill, in 1973, had thus been in part revised by the author, but was of a length and almost Goncourt density of detail that made immediate publication unlikely. Mr Roddick very properly gave his first attention to page xiithe editing and publication of Brasch's last volume of verse, Home Ground (The Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1974). After long discussion, it was agreed that I should attempt to reduce the bulk of the prose manuscript to a reasonable compass (about half the original length) and generally edit it for publication. The result is the present book.
Very briefly, what I have tried to do is to preserve Brasch's own words, order and emphasis throughout, but to cut a considerable amount of personal and background detail. The major problem, of course, was the focus of interest: for whom was Brasch writing? For those New Zealanders who would appreciate all the details of childhood, schooling, and the impressions New Zealand made in the 1930s on a returning traveller, but had only a limited interest in Italian art, Egyptology, or the vicissitudes of a small school for problem children in southern England? Or for those more scattered friends and fellow spirits in Europe and America who had shared much of Brasch's own wartime experience, to whom New Zealand was but a name on the map? The link, of course, is the developing personality and maturing mind of Brasch himself, who was a New Zealander by birth, Jewish by origin, and European by cultural inheritance and the opportunities for travel given to him in his Wanderjahre.
Above all, this is a poet's testament: the record of moments of insight and heightened sensibility, stirred by memorable sights and sensations, the appreciation of great works of art, and by casual or intimate friendships with men, women and children in many different lands. It was from such moments or 'epiphanies' that Charles Brasch made the poetry by which he is most likely to be remembered. And to those New Zealanders who are already aware of Brasch as a distinguished poet and editor, an established figure in a minor corner of English literature, this memoir should have a particular interest. It will prove that one who seemed in later life, in the small world of New Zealand, to be unusually favoured by fortune and family background to lead the apparently sheltered life of an artist and connoisseur, had in fact a longer and more testing private struggle to assert and justify his poetic vocation than many of his fellow-writers.
Indirections is the candid and revealing account of the making of a New Zealand poet. As such, it is unique in our writing; only page xiiiFrank Sargeson (in a more selective and idiosyncratic genre) has attempted anything comparable. Because Charles Brasch's family connexions with Europe were so strong, and because he was especially drawn to the Mediterranean and the Near East, the material for this record of his earlier years has an almost Odyssean richness and colour. Because he saw cities and landscapes with a painter's eye, because he used words like a poet, his feeling for England and Italy and older civilizations (and for the newer worlds of America and Soviet Russia) is convincingly carried in a prose that is seldom mannered, and never precious.
It was Brasch's special achievement, first in poetry and then in prose, to help bring together the values of the older world, and those (however awkward and immature) that were struggling into being in the small Pacific islands in which he claimed a birthright. If at first he moved uncertainly between these two worlds, by the end he was fully at home in both. That will be plain enough to all who know the sequel to the personal story that is told in these pages. Brasch did in fact become a good poet; Landfall was firmly established as the leading literary journal of its time; New Zealand did enter a new flourishing period of activity in the arts, to which Brasch probably made a greater contribution than any other single man. In this sense, at least, the story begun here has a happy ending.
An editor can only hope that his own small effort to tidy up a teeming manuscript has not ended by marring it. No doubt a smaller book, built on some pattern of aesthetic contrast, might have made a more striking literary effect. I have felt bound to keep the main sequence and outline as Brasch left it, and to cut chiefly from the very full sections on Egypt, the Abbey and wartime England. The New Zealand material has been left virtually complete, for after all Brasch is a New Zealand writer, not an English one. The true sequel to this introductory memoir then becomes five volumes of verse, twenty volumes of Landfall, and the anthology Landfall Country (The Caxton Press, Christ-church, 1962).
I wish to express my thanks to Alan Roddick, Ruth Dallas, Bettina Hamilton, Colin Roberts, Margaret Scott, Dan Davin, Ian Milner and Jack Bennett, for their assistance and support in the long task of preparing this text. To Esmond de Beer I owe a page xivparticular debt for the checking of some details, and for making available the very full genealogical tables from which the simplified family tree on p. 425 has been drawn. Mrs Elespie Prior, Michael Hitchings of the Hocken Library, and Mrs Janet Paul of the Turnbull, all helped with the illustrations. Bridget Williams, of Oxford University Press, looked after the production of the book with a special care for which I am grateful.
The dedication to Willi Fels was not authorized, but may be seen as implicit throughout the text, and endorsed in the final chapter.
* A selection of Brasch's critical writings in prose, including 'Present Company', has been edited by Dr. J. L. Watson and is to be published by the University of Otago Press under the title The Dance of Life.