Thursday, March 12, 2009

M. Edmond & the Marti-verse

[Martin Edmond: The Supply Party (2009)]

You know how it is with some writers - as time goes by, and you read more and more of their books, something in them begins to add up to more than the sum of their parts? It's as if the worlds of their imagination have undergone some kind of Hegelian change into a universe - even, in certain select cases, a multi-verse (to borrow a bit of phraseology from DC comics).

I guess that's what's started to happen to me with Martin Edmond. One of the most entertaining aspects of being a magazine editor for me - first brief (2002-5), then my guest issue of Landfall (2007) - has been the chance to see (& publish) new pieces of work by Martin.

Extracts from both Chronicle of the Unsung (issues 21 (2001): 69-74 & 22 (2001): 82-88) and Luca Antara (issues 29 (2004): 33-41 & 30 (2004): 21-26) appeared in brief long before the two of them came out as books.

More to the point, though, I was privileged to include a piece from Martin's as-yet-unpublished short novel Terminus Motel in brief 27 (2003): 32-36; extracts from his White City: The Autobiography of Ernest Lalor Malley first saw the light of day in Landfall 214 - "Open House" (2007): 54-66; and Tina Shaw and I included Martin's short story 'The Temple of Baal' in our anthology of new fiction Myth of the 21st Century (Reed, 2006).

Here's a quick rundown of his work to date (or the pieces I've come across, at any rate):


[Martin Edmond: The Big O Revisited (2008)]


  • Streets of Music (1980) - winner, Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry
  • Houses, Days, Skies (1988)
  • The Big O revisited b/w Providence (Auckland: Soapbox Press, 2008)

[Leon Narbey, dir: Illustrious Energy (1988)]


  • Illustrious Energy (1988) [feature]
  • The Footstep Man (1992) [feature]
  • Philosophy (1997) - winner, Best Short Film, New Zealand Film Awards 1999
  • Terra Nova (1998) [feature] - winner, best first film at the Montreal World Film Festival, 1998
  • Earth Angel (2002) - winner, Best Screenplay at the Breakfast Film and Music Festival, 2003

[Martin Edmond: The Evolution of Mirrors (2008)]


  • The Autobiography of My Father (AUP, 1992)
  • Chemical Evolution: Drugs & Art Production 1970-80 (Bumper Books, 1997)
  • The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont (AUP, 1999) - finalist in the 2000 Montana Book Awards
  • Fenua Imi: the Pacific in History & Imaginary (Bumper Books, 2002)
  • Chronicle of the Unsung (AUP, 2004) - winner, biography category in the 2005 Montana New Zealand Book Awards
  • Ghost Who Writes. Montana Estates Essay Series. (Four Winds Press, 2004)
  • Luca Antara: Passages in search of Australia (East Street Publications, 2006)
  • Waimarino County & other excursions (AUP, 2007)
  • The Evolution of Mirrors (Otoliths Press, 2008)

I guess the easiest way for me to summarise my views on Martin's oeuvre is simply to reprint the review I did of Waimarino County in Landfall 214:

[Martin Edmond: Waimarino County (2007)]

At the Revival Meeting

  • Martin Edmond, Waimarino County and Other Excursions. Auckland: AUP, 2007. ISBN 978 1 86940 391, 240 pages, RRP $40.

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 ... [20]

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” [21]. 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.

[The funny thing for me about this particular paragraph from the review is that "Fetchers" turned out to be the name of an imaginary dog, whose adventures in various parts of the world are being charted online by Martin's kids. I did think at the time the tone of some of the entries was a little outré even for him ...]

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.

[Landfall 214 (2007): 187-90.]

Now there's a new addition to the canon, and thus to the labyrinthine complexities - already, one would have thought, quite sufficiently baroque and strange - of what I'd like to refer to from now on as the "Marti-verse."

Martin's new book The Supply Party, which has just appeared from East Street Publications, the publishers of Luca Antara, charts the adventures of the German scholar and naturalist Ludwig Becker, whose twin careers - as a contributor to Shakespeare iconography, and official artist on the ill-fated Burke & Wills expedition - have never really been clearly juxtaposed before.

I'm looking forward to reading it just the moment I can lay my hands on a copy. Now that Philip K. Dick is well and truly dead, and there doesn't seem much hope of more posthumous books to flesh out his bizarre, prolific cosmos, who else is left to feed my addiction to the strange new worlds of cold hard print?


Anonymous said...

Jack - Great Post. I have just finished reading "The Supply Party" (got my copy on Tuesday). My initial reaction is that it is a little different from ME's other works. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess the nature of any proliferating cosmos demands that the various planets within it should present wide divergences from one another. I'll certainly report my own views when I've read it myself.

Thanks for the heads-up.

Martin Edmond said...

Thank you, Jack, most generous. I'll have to get out my binoculars. Couple of minor corrections - East Street Publications (ESP) is responsible for both The Supply Party & Luca Antara; the latter was distributed in NZ by Addenda but that role has now been taken over by Bookwise International. And Fetchers is an imaginary dog - kids' real dog is a Jack Russell called Ruby.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Oh. Sorry. Yeah, I think I knew that "Fetchers" was imaginary -- but neglected to say so in context. Similarly with the publisher. I had it down as East Street, but your NZ Book Council page gave it as "Addenda," which led me to (wrongly) conclude that there must be some kind of conglomerate involved ...

Richard said...

I have read Martin's book about Clairmont - that was good and I enjoyed his essay in Landfall immensely - I have his Chronicals...Sebald is good - great ....but different to some degree...

I think Martin Edmond is at least one of the great essayists.