The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Chapter 4: The Depression
Chapter 4: The Depression
Garrisons pent up in little fort . . .
such men as these not quarrel and divide
but friend and foe are friends in their hard sort . . .
Writing in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Allen Curnow remarks, "The thirties released—or tapped—a spring. It seemed that New Zealand had its own small audience, alert for new poetry. It began to look to its own creative resources, not this time to provide it with something national to brag about, but to satisfy a real hunger of the spirit."
These words are likewise true of our fiction; three novelists made their appearance in the mid-1930s whose work is historically of major importance and intrinsically still worth our serious attention. All three reveal a "real hunger of the spirit", and go beyond the appeal of the merely national. All three are novelists of social protest, their voices gaining power from the experience of the depression years. John Lee, Robin Hyde and John Mulgan, in spite of great differences in technical achievement, shared the compassionate anger of their time, interpreted their world, and interested both the local and the overseas audience. Only John Mulgan, who spent his twenties outside this country, escaped the faults of provincialism; but all three writers tackled topics of human, rather than colonial interest. With their generation our fiction may be said to have grown up.
John A. Lee. Let us begin with John A. Lee. Denis Glover has remarked that "it is a common fate among reformers to find that their own efforts leave them high and dry, like a boat when the waters have departed elsewhere".11 In this sense, Children of the Poor, John Lee's first novel (written 1931, published 1934) has been stranded by the passage of time. No one but the social historian is likely to be able to recapture the sense of explosive revelation which this novel' brought to its first readers. With its sequel, The Hunted, 1936, it has a bitter, angry power, and is carried along on a stream of emotional over-writing which the times seemed then to warrant. Anger does not make for the classical virtues of discipline and artistic restraint.
These two novels have an autobiographical base. In the New Zealand Listener in September 1960, John Lee wrote, "In the nineties I went to get a plateful and a jug of soup from a soup kitchen . . .page 51
In 1900 thousands of us wore patched and re-patched breeks . . . In my teens I went on the swag to find work . . . " 12 Lee was born in Dunedin in 1891, of a Scottish father and a Romany mother. A ward of the State in his teens, he escaped from industrial school, did casual work on farms and roads, and went swagging from one end of the islands to the other. During World War I he served with the New Zealand forces in France, and was awarded the D.C.M. at Messines. He was M.P. for Auckland East 1922-8, for Grey Lynn 1931-43, and before his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1940 was one of its leading members.
Children of the Poor tells of the stunted childhood of Albany Porcello in the Dunedin of the 1890s, of mean streets and depressed classes, of crude injustice and naked poverty, and of how the "unco guid" look from the worm's-eye view. The motive behind its composition is clear from the dedication, which runs:
"To daughters of the poor. To errant brats and guttersnipes. To eaters of left-overs, the wearers of cast-offs. To slaves of the wash-tub and scrub-brush, whose children, nevertheless, go to hell. To teachers who adopt, through compulsion or desire, the method of the barrack square. To juvenile culprits fleeing from the inescapable hand of the law, sometimes called justice . . . THIS STORY OF THE GUTTER."
Lee expands this story on page nine. "This is a story of the gutter. The gutter is not of Paris, of London, of New York, alone. The social gutter is of every clime and race, of village as well as of town, of the New World as well as of the Old."
The violent attacks made on the book on its publication were of course directed at this frankness and exposure of social need, which seemed all the more dangerous in the later depression when radicalism was deeply feared. "It enjoyed," writes E. H. McCormick, "a succes de scandale which placed undue emphasis on questions of little relevance to criticism; whether it was a good novel or a bad novel by literary standards was the one question that, for the most part, remained unasked ..."
It is time now to ask it. Matters to consider include the technical skill (or lack of it) in the handling of the first-person narration, methods of exposition, the use of the author's direct address to readers, and the emotional tone and control of the writing. John Lee was an excellent journalist—is there too much of effervescence in his style? Do the apostrophes to the reader effect their purpose? Or is it a case of "methinks the hero doth protest too much"? Has the book any unity beyond that given by the presence of Albany throughout? Are not the dice too loaded against the boy? (e.g. his experience of parsons and chaplains). Bernard Shaw's comment, "The book is a whopper", is probably as much an expression of Socialist approval as a tribute to Lee's artistic success.page 52
The Hunted. The sequel, The Hunted, is a much better novel. Albany is sent to a training school, where the mindless severity of the discipline bites into his soul—as into the reader's. His attempts to escape, his long freedom and final recapture, are memorably given. There is a savage little vignette of some godly business skinflints (the unco guid again). Society and circumstances hunt the boy down, and though the book ends with his release it offers no hope that he will not again get tangled in the net. The Hunted is often emotionally violent, but Albany is not sentimentalised. The force of the story lies in its unrelenting pursuit of this one theme; this time fewer explanatory digressions clog the movement. The book has fire and conviction, and some brilliantly told episodes. In New Zealand, John Lee's pair of books were the first social-purpose novels at the workers' level. For all their technical errors, they have considerable power.
Lee's Civilian into Soldier, 1937, is a full-length novel of World War I. Its New Zealand hero John Guy goes through the army horrors, from the prophylactic measures designed "to make vice safe for democracy" to the London prostitutes and the rat-eaten corpses of Flanders. Lee has also written successful light sketches of swagger days (Shining with the Shiner), and in 1943 tried the thriller genre in The Yanks are Coming, set in wartime Auckland.
Robin Hyde. Those of you who know both Passport to Hell and Children of the Poor, will not need telling that there is a striking likeness between them in material and in basic approach. Robin Hyde and John Lee knew each other well. In his brief obituary notice for her in August 1939, Lee recalled his friend's career, and commented that "she left New Zealand because she wanted contact with those others in the world who were suffering, that she might make her own personal protest about injustice and oppression".
Personal Protest. Robin Hyde was the pen-name of Iris Wilkinson, who was born in South Africa, coming to New Zealand as a baby and growing up in Wellington. Like Katherine Mansfield, she attended the Wellington Girls' College. She went straight from school to the office of a newspaper. "I was its Aunt Mary [on the Farmers' Advocate, run by the Dominion", she wrote, "and christened chickens, cows, children, on a page for the young idea." The next twelve years she spent as journalist in various parts of the country, being at different times on the staff of the Sun (Christchurch), the Wanganui Chronicle, the Mirror, and the Observer. She became known as a contributor of articles, short stories and poems in the New Zealand and Australian Press.
The kind of life she led at this time, and the kind of writing she page 53 was forced to do, may be found described with a slick liveliness in her first prose book, Journalese, 1934. This is in poor taste, and without literary merit. It is, however, well worth reading for the picture it gives of the job, and of the personalities of the literary world of the late twenties and early thirties. You will find there anecdotes about her Parliamentary reporting, her meetings with the famous, with evangelists, fortune-tellers, faith-healers, with Kingsford Smith, Mona Tracy, Eileen Duggan, Jessie Mackay, Edith Howes, Rosemary Rees, Jean D.evanny, Jane Mander. There are stories of Nelle Scanlan in the Press gallery in Parliament, of the Auckland riots in 1932, and of Jim Edwards, whose story she learnt from him in jail, and whose wife and eight children she befriended. Other names are dotted about —A. R. D. Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason, C. R. Allen, M. H. Holcroft, Ngaio Marsh, J. H. E. Schroder, Eric Baume, and many others.
There is much in Journalese which explains the successes and failures of the later novels. C. R. Allen himself said, in an obituary in The Press in September 1939, that her Grub Street habits hampered her in more serious work, leading her astray into pernicious literary affectation. She knew this herself—but a living had to be earned.
"I don't altogether approve of myself," she wrote to Johannes Andersen who interested himself in her poetry, "how can one approve of a writer who claims a love of verse foremost, but who also writes novels, short stories, and a journalistic hotch-potch? The novels and short stories mightn't be so bad if I could write them as I want to do. But the journalistic stuff ... I hate and fear. But I have never had much option."13
Dates are important in Robin Hyde's story. She had only ten short years between her first book and her last, ten years in which great promise did not quite come to full fruition. Only in a few of her last poems is her genius seen untrammelled by the handicaps of her life and time.
Here then is a list: 1929 The Desolate Star (verse); 1934 Journalese (articles); 1935 The Conquerors (verse); Passport to Hell (novel); 1936 Check to Your King (novel); 1937 Wednesday's Children (novel); Persephone in Winter (verse); 1938 Nor the Years Condemn (novel); The Godwits Fly (novel); 1939 Dragon Rampant (travel); 1952 Houses by The Sea (verse with a biographical introduction by Gloria Rawlinson).
The Novels. The novels were written in the four years 1935-8, and reflect not only the thinking and feeling of her time, but the personal inner tensions which she was unable to resolve. When she set out for England via the East in 1938, she was, like the godwits from whom she named her last novel, making "the long migration" which seemed to her generation the only hope for New Zealand writers. (Get out, young man . . . ). She did not live to prove page 54 herself abroad; but almost as soon as she had left the country she attained enough perspective to look back upon the years of the 1930s through which she had struggled, and to assess what her generation had done.
In the article already quoted about New Zealand literature in T'ien Hsia she distinguished three stages of development, the early Maori and pioneer period, the Mander-Satchell generation, and her own, that of the depression of the 1930s.
The first stage, she said, was that of "unselfconsciousness, when writers knew without question, moralising or hesitation what they were, . . . not exiles or minds divided, but whole people", Englishmen that is, although transplanted. In the next stage, she said, in a false unreal atmosphere "the writers of my land and generation grew up: loving every inch of the terrain, feeling it grow into minds and bones, but knowing little of its story or cultural past". It was their task to become true New Zealanders, and she realised that in the third stage they had done so. But how difficult it was. "New Zealand ... is not easily put on paper." She ended the article with the words quoted earlier, "Remember us for this, if for nothing else: in our generation, of our own initiative, we loved England still, but we ceased to be 'forever England'. We became, for as long as we have a country, New Zealand."
What "New Zealandism" meant to her may be seen from a comment made as early as 1934 in Journalese:
"The Pretty Boys who've been to England once say ... we must develop a purely Colonial Style, no family or Windsor Ghosts, local colour laid on as thick as a chorine's grease paint. Sit about singing to tuis and babbling of bellbirds for the term of your natural life, but if you happen to think of something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child, keep it dark. I hate these aggressively insular New Zealanders."
Putting New Zealand on to paper, then, a task of extraordinary difficulty as we have seen, was not to be a matter of tuis and bell-birds, but of human experience "in the world of man, woman and child", located here only because all human experience is of a time and a place.
This is the clue to all her novels, and to her story of her experiences in China, Dragon Rampant. Her theme is the people, "garrisons pent up in little fort"; they are New Zealanders, but she will not be "aggressively insular" about them, for what is of ultimate value is the revelation of truth about "man, woman and child".
Passport to Hell. Passport to Hell is the novel in which the influence and friendship of John Lee can be most felt.-It is Robin Hyde's strongest "personal protest" about injustice, suffering, and society's intolerance of deviation from mid-Victorian morality. Win- page 55 ston Rhodes has spoken of her "groping for the scent of the people", searching for some living realisation of the brotherhood of man, of the lost spirit of community. In this first novel, these gropings are defined by negatives, for she tells the story of Starkie, outcast, rebel, misfit, hero, without permitting herself any of the direct appeals to her readers' sympathy which mar the effectiveness of John Lee's onslaught in Children of the Poor.
Passport to Hell is a fictional reconstruction of the life of James Douglas Stark, bomber, Fifth Regiment, N.Z.E.F. In her author's note Robin Hyde explains, "This book is not a work of fiction. I have related its incidents and the circumstances under which they happened, as Starkie told them to me ... At his own wish I have given the names of Starkie's family circle correctly, and those of the little group of friends who during the war were leagued together as 'Tent Eight'." A field chaplain, two generals and two New Zealand politicians are correctly named, otherwise the names are fictitious.
This novel, as well as its sequel Nor the Years Condemn, is remarkable for its picture of the tough male world which Robin Hyde could know of only by hearsay, and reconstruct only with imaginative sympathy. Readers will instantly think of parallels from the literature of World War II, such books as Brave Company, For the Rest of Our Lives, A Gun in my Hand, and so on.
The book begins with her description of how she met Starkie, sent to interview him in his little Auckland slum, with his motherless coffee-coloured children whom he refused to part with to the welfare officer. Speaking of the problem of the returned soldier in every country, she notes his desperate desire to fit in again, to "go forward and die" as one of the most valuable things remaining in our world. Then she tells Starkie's story from its beginnings. As the book is at present out of print, here is a brief outline. Starkie was born in Invercargill in 1898, son of a Delaware Indian from Great Bear Lake, who had come to the goldfields. His mother was Spanish. With his coal-black hair and bronze skin, the father "stalked through the psychological fences" of racial troubles "like some mahogany Moses". There follows a vivid re-creation of Starkie's rebellious childhood, his hatred of school—six months was the longest he lasted at any— and his spell at the Burnham Industrial School for the reform of incorrigibles, when he was twelve. He asked to go to sea, was put on a coal boat trading to the West Coast, was maltreated, deserted at Lyttelton, ran for it into the interior, was succoured and given temporary sanctuary in a back-country sheep station. After some time on the run, with casual jobs in woolstore or on wharf, he spent a year in Invercargill gaol marked down as a "Red Indian Savage". Released at sixteen, homeless and unloved, he enlisted. Life at Trentham, and his mates of Tent Eight, offered him companionship for the first time. On the voyage to Egypt he was in more trouble, page 56 for Army discipline rubbed him raw. Robin Hyde's account of his war experiences at Gallipoli and in France, on London leave, in military prison, or in the trenches, is a powerful achievement. When, as in the chapter entitled Court-Martial, Starkie is made to speak for himself, the narration is slangy, jerky, and natural, suggesting most effectively the man he was.
This is a violent book, savage, full of anger at injustice. Yet, unlike John Lee, Robin Hyde leaves her tale to carry its own message. Starkie goes all through the war, being shipped home at Christmas 1918, bringing nothing with him "but his tattooed captaincy stars, a record of nine courts-martial, a total of 35 years' penal servitude in military sentences—all cancelled for gallantry in action".
Thus Starkie returns, aged exactly twenty, to take up civilian existence. "Everything—life even—is field punishment." No moral is drawn, except what may be implied in the final words of the story:
" '. . . Do you know your charge?'
'Charged with being Starkie, sir; and God knows what else.'"
Sequel. Nor the Years Condemn, the sequel, is much less successful. It is an attempt to present the boom-and-bust period which followed the war, as well as to tell Starkie's later story. But Robin Hyde's grip has relaxed; the book is dull, and written in a style which varies unpredictably between the pedestrian and the fantastic. This liability to exasperating mannerisms remained one of her gravest stylistic defects. The content of this novel has not been realised in her imagination; it remains, as it were, on the level of news. She has not been able to shape the raw material to her intention.
De Thierry. Check to Your King which followed Passport to Hell in 1936, is likewise not a straight work of fiction. It was when she was delving into the "enormous, unpublished, unpublishable" correspondence of Charles de Thierry, "Sovereign Chief of New Zealand", that Robin Hyde began to feel herself really at home in her own country, to repair that lack of knowledge of "its story and cultural past" of which she spoke in the article already quoted. Check to Your King is a scintillating performance. Perhaps most striking at first are its awkward fluctuations of tone. These spring from the unresolved conflict in Robin Hyde between the twin selves of historian and poet, the serious artist and the over-colourful reporter. Yet how better could this incredible story be presented?
Charles Philip Hippolytus de Thierry, son of a French emigre of revolutionary days, bought himself in 1822 a little private Kingdom in New Zealand, some 40,000 acres near Hokianga in the North Island, for the price of thirty-six axes. At least, that is what missionary Kendall to whom £1,000 capital was apparently entrusted, is said to have paid over to the Maori chiefs concerned. Fourteen page 57 years later, after the forming and bursting of many other impossible bubbles, Charles de Thierry, already "King of Nukahiva", arrived in New Zealand. With him he brought a shipload of Sydney sharks, his wife the baroness, his sons, his Princess Isabel, his flag, and his ideals of royal behaviour. He was determined to be a Good King. As in Passport, Robin Hyde is searching for "the truth beneath the surface lies". In her own words, "Shakespeare kept saying, 'to thine own self be true' ... I began to wonder, which self? True to which self? . . . I was always in bad trouble . . . with the truth. Not so much knowing what it is, as knowing which it is. My truths . . . had second selves, split personalities, double faces ..."
Was Starkie a criminal desperado, or a hero? Truth has a "double face". Was Baron de Thierry a rogue, a lunatic, or a man of fine ideas and fine ideals?
History writes him down as an eccentric with delusions of grandeur, a marginal bad joke in the March of Progress. Yet the man evoked in Robin Hyde's reconstruction is a very human being, fallible, vain, courageous, pathetic, honourable and silly. His Utopia came to nothing, but he was not alone in his century in dreaming finely of it, nor in trying to set it upon some distant savage shore.
Check to Your King, then, is based on historical research, but it is more than a reconstruction, it is a personal attitude, an interpretation, a point of view. This is why Robin Hyde begins her story so breathlessly, with a zestful selfconsciousness which puts the huge craziness of the de Thierrys before us in a light both mocking and loving. We are at once associated with the author in her personal approach, so that our tribal defences against marked nonconformity are set aside, and we take a sympathetic stand within the experience, while retaining the independence of an observer. The effect of the kaleidoscopic changes in technique is to give us a lively portrait of the hero and his world. Once she has landed her cargo of Utopians in New Zealand, Robin Hyde handles her story more straightforwardly and brings it, in spite of some guidebook stuffing, to a moving climax. Check to Your King embodies what was for its author a deeply felt theme, for Charles de Thierry is, like Starkie and the Wednesday of her next book, an outsider, "charging bullheaded at the brick wall of materialism". For all its impractical absurdity, de Thierry's kingdom represents something fundamental to the human heart. "There are things within your gift which don't belong to other principalities; people will see that for themselves."
Wednesday's Children. Robin Hyde was always in peril on the border between reality and fantasy. Whimsy, especially in imagery or would-be poetic flights, disfigures her fiction again and again. Only in Wednesday's Children, however, did she allow fantasy to be the basis of a whole work. Many readers find that they cannot page 58 enjoy it for this reason. Yet according to Winston Rhodes,14 it is in this story—her first straight novel—that she came nearest to saying what she wanted to say, to expressing her longing for a free community of human beings, whose potentialities would not be smothered by the social necessities, nor "eaten up by the locusts of other people's dependence". You may not agree with the verdict that the book is her best, but you will agree that seldom has so vivid a picture been painted in our fiction of Auckland and its surroundings, of the harbour, the gulls, the sand dunes and convolvulus, the Bay hovels, the slum dwellers. The emphasis of this book is on freedom in the personal life, on vision, love, longing.
The story is of Wednesday, half-sister of Ronald Gilfillan, a comfortable conforming New Zealander with "a quarter-acre section neatly fenced". Having consulted Madame Mystera, a fortune-teller of Freemans Bay, and been told that fortune, lovers and children are ahead of her, Wednesday takes a ticket in a lottery. She wins £25,000.
It is impossible to indicate what happens next without spoiling the first impact of the book. Enough to say that reality and fantasy become inextricably mixed, for Wednesday as well as the reader, and that there are poetry, humour, unexpectedness and delight.
At the end Wednesday endeavours to explain it all in a letter, from which the remark quoted earlier about the "second selves of truth" was taken. "Most surface selves are such lies," writes Wednesday— speaking for the author. Wednesday's Children is, like Check to Your King and Passport, a search for personal truth.
Infinite Promise . . . Uncertain Direction. Robin Hyde's record up to 1937 is of several starts in different directions; first, the realistic, as in Passport; then the fantastic, as in Wednesday's Children; all the time, the poetic, for her verse volume Persephone In Winter appeared in 1937. Would she ever find the medium which would be right for her, and on which she could concentrate, achieving a rounded, full and consistent work of art?
Her next and last novel, The Godwits Fly, represents the nearest she approached to this. It has flaws, but also merits, and it does begin to achieve what Robin Hyde felt her generation of writers had consciously set out to do, to make possible "the integration of a country from the looseness of the soil".
In its issue of July, 1932, the short-lived little magazine, Phoenix, expressed this idea in another way: "We are hungry for the words that shall show us these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought."
Robin Hyde tells of the Hannays, a Wellington family whose trials, vicissitudes and enjoyments she contrives to make representative of us all, the middle-class New Zealanders. The period is that of her page 59 own life, the Great War and its aftermath; the social tensions observed, the suburban hopes and fears, the struggles and failures are those of many such households of the time. The early chapters in particular stand out in the memory.
The Hannays, John and Augusta, come to New Zealand with their children. Augusta has genteel notions, of English origin, "but tinned as it were", and sinks only reluctantly into New Zealand ordinariness. She cannot at first, for instance, stomach the "meaty-coloured combinations and underpants" displayed to view on many a backyard clothesline. John, on the other hand, merges happily with the democratic good-fellowship around him, is attracted by socialistic theories, and craves for the warmth of casual company. In spite of Augusta, the family assumes a protective New Zealand colouring. "Whenever she won some little advantage, a neighbour who could be called 'nice', a patch of lawn, . . . something went wrong." How clearly Robin Hyde conjures up the Wellington world of the young Hannay girl Eliza! She is excellent at capturing the feeling of place, as we have seen in her Auckland descriptions and in the account of Starkie's childhood in the South. Eliza knows the old Newtown Zoo, with the fire-bellied newt which she is never allowed to see because "belly" is a rude word; we see the old, loved ferry boat Cobar, on its excursions across the harbour to Days Bay; we see Form 3 at Wellington Girls' College, where John Masefield's poems are read in privacy at the bottom of the grounds, Eliza imitating them, just as young Iris Wilkinson did— "It's a far way to England".
There are several themes in the book, not well fused. Most striking is the personal anguish, reflected in the explanatory foreword; what does it mean, especially to the sensitive child who may become an artist, to be a New Zealander? Eliza, who is the focus of the book, grows up unable to resolve the intolerable split in her experience. "You were English and not English . . . you were brought up on bluebells and primroses and daffodils and robins in the snow . . . one day you realised that there were no robins and no snow and you felt cheated." Those who rebel against the cheat are the human godwits, "who fly every year from the top part of the North Island to Siberia, thousands of miles without a stop. They fly north . . . they fly north." Like the godwits, young New Zealanders "must make the long migration, under a compulsion they barely understand; or else be dissatisfied all their lives long".
Eliza, questioning her world in her schooldays, asks "Don't you think we live half our lives in England, anyhow? I was thinking—there can't have been anything quite like this since the Roman Colonists settled in Britain: not the hanging on with one hand, and the other hand full of seas. Wouldn't we be different there [in England], more ourselves?"
This theme is not, however, worked out in the terms of the novel, page 60 being stated, but not shown in its impact on Eliza's life. This is a major weakness. Instead, we have a brilliant rendering of a Wellington girlhood, which shades off into loneliness, unhappiness, disaster in love, the loss of a child, and final grey acceptance of what life has brought. The godwit, in this case, did not really fly; but we are not made to feel that Eliza would have been "more herself" had she "flown" to the other hemisphere, for the tragedy is in her own temperament. The godwit theme peters out, after a memorable opening.
Yet The Godwits Fly remains one of the remarkable novels of its time. Technically there is nothing new—our novelists till the 1950s have not been venturesome in their craftsmanship—but there are evocative writing, perception, compassion, and an understanding of loneliness and of the springs of human conduct "beneath the surface lies".
John Mulgan. The feeling that "you were English and not English . . . hanging on with one hand, and the other hand full of seas" was expressed by others at this time besides Robin Hyde, notably by John Guthrie and the two Mulgans, father and son. Alan Mulgan's Home, 1927, epitomises the allegiance of the New Zealander who hung on with both hands; John Mulgan's autobiography Report on Experience, 1947, is by a "godwit" who made the Northern migration, only to learn on the other side of the world that home is here in New Zealand, and that only from home, when one has understood it for what it is, can one extend sympathy and loyalty to common humanity, for we are all "garrisons pent up in little fort . . ."
Report on Experience should be read for its picture of the generation who, in Robin Hyde's words, "loved England still, but ceased to be 'forever England'", who "became, for so long as we have a country, New Zealand". John Mulgan's picture of the New Zealand he had come to love most when he had left it is idealised eloquently with the same kind of poetic heightening as you will detect in Robin Hyde. It is a moving testament of a new, more mature kind of patriotism; John Mulgan is no "aggressively insular New Zealander . . . babbling of bellbirds".
Man Alone. Before he died at the end of the war he had time to express this new maturity of vision in only one novel, Man Alone, 1939. Like John Lee, like Robin Hyde, he is "groping for the scent of the people".
John Mulgan was born in 1911, went to Auckland University College, knew the student agitations, the ferment of ideas, the political pressures, the socialist theories of the 1930s. There followed further university experience at Oxford, an appointment to the Clarendon Press, journalism, editing, and routine literary jobs. (There is a little history of literature by Davin and Mulgan.) He enlisted in 1939, before the war began, and was awarded the M.C. in 1943 for his page 61 work with the Greek resistance movement. His student days at Auckland coincided with the depression, so that both the New Zealand scene of Man Alone and its wider outside political implications were those of John Mulgan's own experience.
Man Alone is old as well as new. It is old by reason of its social purpose which was the motive of Edith Grossmann and John Lee; like Chamier, John Mulgan has a thesis, "it is not good for a man to be alone". New is the method by which the theme is implicit in the story, almost is the story itself. Unlike Lee, John Mulgan makes no direct statement of his view. He handles the topic of what the world was like between the wars, the clashes of the thirties, and the bewilderment of men, in the antipodean setting familiar to him, without giving it any special colonial selfconsciousness.
Also new is Mulgan's central figure, Johnson. Refreshingly he is neither an intellectual frustrated, nor an adolescent in turmoil. As he is an Englishman, not one of us, he can see familiar things in a fresh light, and comment accordingly. Through his eyes a dour, unfriendly, unhappy "little country" is seen, in which easy good-fellowship erodes under the pressure of unfamiliar evils. This, by the end of the story, is not a land of Kiwi cobbers, but of men alone.
The title, drawn from Hemingway, is a sign of allegiance. Johnson is a Hemingway figure, inarticulate, sensitive, representative of his kind. But the North Island world he moves around in is not Hemingway's; it is native through and through. James Baxter has commented on the description of the Queen Street riot in Auckland, "that superb study in crowd psychology", and on the brilliance of the conversation with the old drunk in the railway truck. Scene after scene comes to mind as authentic. Look at the description of the land at the opening of chapter two, and the dialogue and comment which follow. Look at the narrative of the journey across the Desert Road country and the Kaimanawa Range.
Man Alone is a well made book, much more complex than it appears. Two elements dovetail, the sense of modern man's isolation and losing private battle with forces he cannot control, economic, military and political, and the picture of a social structure in collapse. As the bits fly apart and cohesion is gone, so man becomes the solitary, the outlaw, the hunted, the "hatter". It is a mark of Mulgan's talent that he should see in that typical New Zealand figure not only the image of Western man between the wars but an image of the human predicament. The book is thus lifted above mere reportage of our scene, and those things in it which are peculiarly our own become also symbolic of twentieth-century humanity. By the end of the novel, Johnson has turned into an almost mythical figure, the common man. "He was a good man. He took what was coming ... he was just sitting there . . . there are some men . . . you can't kill . . ."
There are several styles of writing in the novel. Much is told in the page 62 laconic New Zealand dialogue whose flavour John Mulgan gets just right. The Auckland riots are done in direct narrative. In the bush episode, the bare prose is allowed to rise in level, possibly sometimes becoming perilously near "fine writing". The flamboyance here, however, makes more emphatic the objective economy of the rest of the tale.*
Man Alone is the fullest prose rendering of what the New Zealand twenties and thirties felt like; in poetry, perhaps the best picture is to be found in the work of Denis Glover, R. A. K. Mason, and A. R. D. Fairburn. Allen Curnow in his introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse outlines the story well; readers will find his analysis of the climate of thought and feeling most profitable. R. A. K. Mason's Sonnet of Brotherhood, 1925, quoted as epigraph to this chapter, puts it all in a nutshell.
* I have allowed these remarks made in 1960 to stand in this edition, but they should be read in the light of Paul Day's revealing critical study of the genesis of the novel in Comment 24, August, 1965.