Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

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