Jack Ross, ed.: Landfall 214 (November 2007)
At the Revival Meeting
Martin Edmond, Waimarino County and Other Excursions. Auckland: AUP, 2007. ISBN 978 1 86940 391, 240 pages, RRP $40.
Martin Edmond: Waimarino County (2007)
I first met Martin Edmond in Devonport, on the night of Alan Brunton’s memorial concert in December 2002. A group of us were booked to do a cabaret-style performance at a café as part of the Massey Gothic Conference (also on that weekend). We were planning to speed on over the bridge afterwards to catch the dying minutes of the concert. As it turned out, the venue we’d been booked to perform in had – quite unexpectedly – gone out of business, so we ended up being able to attend the whole of that baroque, extraordinary, farewell celebration.
From the moment we met, I felt as if I’d known Martin for years. It’s true that we’d been corresponding for a while – over his contributions to brief magazine, which I was then editing, and also various matters to do with Brunton’s Bumper Books, the publishing arm of Red Mole. Meeting people you feel you know through letters is not always entirely satisfactory, though. All sorts of things you hardly notice on paper can suddenly rear up when print converts to flesh.
Which is a rather roundabout way of saying that we got on well, and have continued to get on well. What’s more, the manner of our meeting was a characteristic serendipity. I’ve never had a conversation with Martin Edmond which hasn’t involved him filling me in on some piece of arcane lore about a little-known writer, or place, or iconic event.
In one sense, then, I’m the ideal reader for Martin’s collection of essays, Waimarino County & Other Excursions. Leafing through it is a lot like the experience of meeting the man himself. Witty, urbane, well-informed – but not in the distant, old-world way that those words would appear to imply. No, Martin’s writing never eschews emotional involvement with the matters he is describing. There’s hardly an essay here which sounds as if it was constructed to order. The subject matter is always close to his heart.
I guess, for me, the most striking example is “The Hallelujah Chorus.” At the centre of this essay there’s a terrifying account of his visit to a revival meeting:
And as these sinners declared themselves, the chanting in the theatre rose in pitch and fervour and intensity until there came above the thunderous chorus a weird, high ululation from the stalls on the front left-hand side. I had never heard people speaking in tongues before. Glossolalia sounds like someone yodelling so hard their uvula goes into spasm. It reminded me of a time I heard a flock of sheep mustering at dusk on a Lands and Survey block out the back of Stratford ... 
I was there! Not at that particular meeting, of course, but many similar ones (Billy Graham, the Church of Christ, the Assembly of God). The only difference is that I would have been part of that flock yodelling strangely as the spirit of Pentecost came down on us …
Praise the Lord the Holy Ghost has descended upon us in Tongues of Flame! the Preacher screeched above the clamour of the Believers, doubling and redoubling their efforts. Then he began to call particular people out of the crowd. Suddenly I heard him say: There is a young man of sixteen or seventeen years (I had just turned seventeen) and he is sitting on the right-hand side of the cinema (I was) two thirds of the way towards the back (exactly!) and be is wondering whether to come forward now and give his soul to Jesus (I wasn’t, but, hell …). Let us all now raise our voices to the heavens and ask the Lord to give strength to this young man so that be may come and join us...
That’s precisely it. He’s put his finger on the mastery of it, the curious effectiveness of those techniques of mass persuasion. How many times have I sat fidgeting in the middle row, sure that I was the one who was being singled out for attention, sure that this was it, that tonight was the only chance I would ever have to escape perdition?
And I did feel a powerful force calling me. I was young and uncertain and the exorcism of possible demons from the chaos of my awakening mind did for a moment seem desirable, even seductive. Surely there was no harm in it? It was certainly impressive to see old people getting out of their wheelchairs and tottering forward to lean on the edge of the stage.
An opportune bit of squabbling saves Martin in the nick of time – “Any chance I would go forward to be saved blew away in that poor kid’s outraged, helpless sobbing” . What impresses me, though, is that he is prepared to admit that the opportunity was there, that he might have given in.
Mind you, I doubt it would have taken. Martin Edmond was born to be a flâneur, a Baudelairean dandy exploring the byways of the metropolis (whether it be Auckland, Wellington or Sydney). There’s another part of him that is in deadly earnest, though. The strength of his writing is that he is able to give equal weight to both sides.
Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde named the two warring impulses within his hero after the two dominant intellectual influences of that time, the late nineteenth century: on the one hand, the amoral aestheticism of Walter Pater, on the other, the moral earnestness of John Ruskin. In Martin’s case I’d be tempted to call the two Ohakune and Alan Brunton.
Does that sound frivolous? It isn’t meant to. The Martin Edmond of Autobiography of My Father, of the childhood portions of Chronicle of the Unsung, of the “Autobiographies” section of the book we’re examining here, is a man profoundly, wistfully in love with his own past – with the complex intensities of youth and adolescence in that little town on the Grand Trunk Line. He’s the poet of that region, in fact – more alert to its contradictions and diversities even than that near neighbour of his, the Gothic novelist Ronald Hugh Morriesson.
And yet there’s also the Martin who ran away – almost literally – to join the circus, who followed the mercurial Alan Brunton on tour with Red Mole, abandoning the academic gravy train of Victoria University to do so. This is the Martin who writes so lovingly about Cavafy and Pessoa, who understands the attraction of that shifting signifier of international modernism, the heteronym.
Why are Martin’s books so challenging in form? Why does he resist easy genre identification, that secure place in the bookshop racks? It’s cost him, that’s for sure. Anyone straddling the uneasy frontiers of fiction and non-fiction, whose work might equally well be shelved under autobiography, travel writing or cultural commentary is liable to the suspicion of lazy readers. Praise, yes – there’s been a lot of praise of the originality of Martin’s work, but it’s usually (paradoxically) coupled with the name of some other writer whose example he is implied to be imitating: W. G. Sebald is the most obvious example, but recently Thomas de Quincey has been cited as a strong precedent (this despite the fact that Martin assures me that he has only the most tangential familiarity even with the original Opium Eater essays).
It’s hard for me to imagine any reader not finding something to their liking in the four sections of this book: ‘Autobiographies’; ‘Meditations’ (on subjects ranging from the Rosetta Stone to Alan Brunton); ‘Illusions’ (prose poems and dreams, mostly from his online blog); and ‘Voices’, published previously under the title Ghost Who Writes in Lloyd Jones’s excellent little Montana essay Series. Nor do I think I’m unique in finding virtually all of it to my liking. In fact, I can’t think of a book which has beguiled me as much since I first picked up Borges’ Labyrinths when I was a teenager.
The idea of the blog, the online diary, is another important component of Martin’s collection. He began (as I understand it) with the idea of starting a new blog for each new book project, but they appear to have evolved into a more complex symmetry.
There’s Luca Antara (“... who knows what other travellers might not have set out with a wild surmise for these shores? Looking perhaps for Luca Antara; perhaps just for the day after tomorrow”), described as being the work of a “schizoid antipodean.” That one has been running since 2004.
Then there’s dérives (started in 2005), which began with prose poems and reflections, but has now settled down to a portrait of the seedier side of cab driving in Sydney.
White City (begun in 2006), now a compendium of dreams and dream essays, was presumably intended to accompany Martin’s Ern Malley memoir / novel (accessible, so far, only in extracts such as the one included in this issue of Landfall).
No doubt Martin foresees a date at which he can move over to the new blog, Fetchers (started in July 2007) At present it’s confined to the single optimistic statement: “It’s a happy day today,” but there’s no doubt a lot more to come.
Raw material for the books? Undoubtedly. But the mere fact of being able to make your random jottings available online within minutes of writing them has an inevitable influence of the nature of that writing. It’s hard to see how writers can continue to ignore the possibilities of instantaneous communication – the barrage of comments and cross-references possible through hypertext.
In the present case, it’s fascinating to see how they’ve stolen into the texture of Martin’s book, along with more considered pieces from the nzepc, brief, and various other anthologies and projects, to give us the closest thing to an anatomy of the life of a twenty-first century writer I can readily imagine.
So I guess the reason I’d really advise to buy this book is not simply as an entry pass to the world of Martin Edmond, but also as a cartography of where we are, right now, at the bottom of the world, in the complex of world culture.