You don't skim Tim Corballis. His prose requires and repays close, respectful reading; after all, it's written that way.

These two novellas show again his preoccupation with identity: within oneself and within a physical or temporal landscape. There's the unsettling glide between reality and vision that distinguishes his earlier fiction, and once more we have works which - it's a common enough contemporary trope - refer frequently to the making of works.

The first weaves around the life of Joan Riviere, early 20th-century "lay psychoanalyst", translator, feminist model. A New Zealand researcher is in London, poring over her fragile files. Almost immediately, the reader is asked to contribute, to augment "this game-like piece of language, like all language", to help comprehend "all these thoughts and questions here in the one calm space in the world".

Characters meet, marry, try intensely and imperfectly to communicate. The narrator's own family and writing life back home counterpoints the story. Freud and a wartime gas attack feature; so do Afghanistan and Enron.

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Riviere remains an historically insubstantial figure. Hermann Henselmann, intermittent focus of the second novella, is concrete in several ways. He was Chief Architect for post-World War II Eastern Germany; many of its public buildings can be attributed to or blamed on him.

In Corballis' hands, he, too, is anatomised but elusive. Everything about him comes accompanied by metaphors and musings, from author as well as subject. The narrative pauses, re-tracks, constantly edges towards the peripheries.

National Socialism condemns Henselmann's first work as "cultural Bolshevism". He survives the war, in spite of the Allies' "theatrical" carpet bombing, and accusations that he's part-Jewish. He moves on to architecture that dwarfs yet collectively expresses its people.

Corballis sees both these lives as paradigms of the last century: its confusions and multiple viewpoints, its obsessions with past and future, with questions endlessly asked but seldom answered.

The writing is meticulous; words and events fit together as intricately as tesserae in a mosaic. Scenes are immediate yet nearly always ambivalent. Time knots and sideslips. The plots (inadequate word) crackle with conflict, yet are often still - a stillness not of inertia but of intense attention.

You'll never find Corballis an easy read (another anaemic term), but you couldn't ask for a more perceptive, painstaking companion through the mazes of human thoughts and motivations.

R.H.I.
by Tim Corballis
(Victoria University Press $30)