The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
White Wine. Sweet White Wine, 1956, is the narrative of Simon Gregg, aged fifty-one, a successful novelist. Guthrie Wilson has chosen ground he knows well, Palmerston North, Wellington, Victoria College, war, local politics, literature, the law. Simon, recalling the course of his friendship with Paul Mundy, puzzles uncomprehendingly at the problems of human relationships, revealing to us faults in Paul of which the narrator is unaware. This double view is a fine device handled with skill. Paul, Simon, and Simon's wife Jean emerge as believable people by whose fates we can be stirred.
The weaknesses of the novel are those with which New Zealand writers have struggled for so long. How to transmute actual experience into fiction, how to create people whose lives will interest us though outwardly ordinary, how to suggest the locality without giving lecturettes, these are the problems. Simon's boyhood in Palmerston North is convincing, his university years less so; some of the minor portraits are too recognisable, too near to biography, as was the case with Alan Mulgan's Spur of Morning. In spite of these troubles, Sweet White Wine is technically competent; the chatty underplayed narrative style is sustained consistently, and a coherent impression is left in the reader's mind.
This is the novel which was the subject of a libel action, following page 97 its review in the Times in Palmerston North (22 September 1956). Check back to M. H. Holcroft's remarks quoted in the opening chapter of this book about the New Zealand reader's "reluctance to make any concession to fancy", and tendency "to discuss stories as if they were factual narratives". The local attitude reflected in the Times review confirms Holcroft's opinion. Yet is it perhaps true that in Sweet White Wine Wilson drew on actual experience without adequately fusing it into a new creation, so that one's attention is drawn to its basis in fact?