The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Chapter 7 the Fifties II: The Harvest Begins
Chapter 7 the Fifties II: The Harvest Begins
'Established' is a good word, much used in garden books,
'The plant, when established' . . .
Oh, become established quickly, quickly, garden!
Writing in the New Zealand Listener in December 1960, M. H. Holcroft commented on the increased number of New Zealand books which had come up for review during the year. Thirty had been noted in the previous month alone. In 1959, in a comparable period, there were twelve, in 1958, fourteen.
This is a sign of the times. New Zealand writing, New Zealand publishing, have taken an upward turn. With literary fund support for some new work and for some reprints of our "classics", interest in our own literature is rising steadily. Equally important are the greater opportunities open to novelists who wish to publish overseas. Some break first into the English or American market—as did Sylvia Ashton-Warner with Spinster; some arrange publication simultaneously here and in England under a new type of partnership now developing. Some appear first in New Zealand, and may make enough stir to attract a later overseas offer. This is what happened to Owls Do Cry, which achieved publication in America, France and Germany.
The quality of the items in this rising tide of production varies, naturally enough, nor can any final assessment be made of books so new and so near to us in time. Posterity will sort them out; meanwhile we can read them, and argue.
Established. For too long the typical fate of a New Zealand novelist was to put forth one or two shoots, find the weather inclement, and fail to "become established". This happened to William Satchell, to Jane Mander, to Robin Hyde; a feature of the literary landscape today is the number of serious established writers. Dan Davin, James Courage, Frank Sargeson, Guthrie Wilson have already been noted.
Guthrie Wilson's first civilian novel, Julien Ware, 1952, is a study of class conflict in the feudal society of the Canterbury foothills. Julien, son of Tom the rabbiter on the abandoned Cecil run, the Torrens, longs to own it and make it green and fertile. But the Torrens will be inherited by Stella Cecil, living on the plains below on her father's other estate. The core of the novel is Julien's ruthless ambition, page 96 his affection for the soft kindly Beth, his marriage to the proud Stella, his gradual adopting of the money snobbery of the owner class into which he is battling. As a result, his vision of the land as a trust to be honoured is forgotten. Only in an interlude of war service, when Julien and the unregarded Beth become lovers, does he return to the truth of his dream, and plan to make the Torrens green. The war, however, ordains a different ending.
There is no doubt that Guthrie Wilson has here a good subject, with rich opportunities for sardonic observation of the world of wool cheques and social mountaineering. Julien, the outsider, should have been the centre of the tale, a personality whose ambition, love, and hate would really move us, and whose defeat would in some way arise from the whole pattern. This is not so. What effect did the author intend by having him killed at random in a war? If there is the implication that such is the end of earthly ambition, the irony is not made clear. Moreover, the ways in which Julien breaks into the land-owning class are only accidental, too reminiscent of the lost wills and rich uncles of Victorian melodrama.
These flaws prevent Julien Ware from being much more than an unusual love story told from the man's point of view. It is written with admirable economy, and evokes land and people without fuss. The characters, except Julien, are rather cardboard affairs, and the philosophising often seems false. Perhaps Guthrie Wilson was not himself sure quite what he was trying to do.
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?
Strip Jack Naked. In Strip Jack Naked, 1957, Wilson returns to the theme of violence which dominates his two war novels. This time it is a study of another "man alone", Jack, who has skipped his ship, knuckledustered his way round the waterfront, beaten up a Maori, and finally in a surge of uncontrollable anger, committed an unpremeditated murder. Then we have the hunt, and the leap off the wharf back into the waters which had brought him here. There is argument about the value of this novel; some hold it to be cheap, violent nonsense, others claim that it is a penetrating short study of obsessive elements in our life.
Since he crossed the Tasman to Sydney, Guthrie Wilson has not again used the New Zealand setting. Dear Miranda, 1959, is a light comedy of an Australian girl in London and elsewhere. The Incorruptibles, 1960, is a novel about the appointment of a Sydney headmaster, with the limited area for characters and action which has been so fruitful for C. P. Snow's studies of power among men. Clearly, Guthrie Wilson is a man to be watched; he now has a professional technique, and as wide a range of subject matter as James Courage or Dan Davin. It should be interesting to see whether he can go further.
Diarmid Cathie—this is a pseudonym—is an Englishman who spent a term here in the broadcasting service. His book tells the tale of MacGregor, an Adult Education drama tutor in the Marlborough district, and of his degeneration among his colonial cobbers, until wine, women and song lead to murder. MacGregor is unsatisfactory as a character, while the motives for his fall are inadequate. One is meant to shudder at the emptiness of unoccupied days, at nights spent in futile classes among silly people, and to agree that eight weeks of this would bring even a Scotsman low. This seems, on our New Zealand record, highly improbable! What is good, however, is the incidental page 98 material, the rendering of the lingo of pubs and parties, especially of the booze-up which leads to the hero's destruction.
Voyagers in Aspic is a witty story of three New Zealanders making the sea pilgrimage to England. They observe their fellow travellers sardonically in the manner of Evelyn Waugh. Colonial drinking habits, richly ostentatious women, literary aspirants, are all touched on with farcical gusto. Once the trio land in London, however, the derivative nature of John Gillies's satire becomes too plain. Except for the adventures of Mrs Willoughby-Smart, who has taken her daughter Home with the highest social expectations, the rest of the book is not as good as its opening chapters.
The New Zealand Novel? In Parson's Packet some years ago, A. R. D. Fairburn drew up a "Sketch-plan for the Great New Zealand Novel". (Text now available in The Kiwi Laughs, ed. J. C. Reid, 1960.) This skims delightfully over the stereotypes to date— the Irish, remittance men, drinking, madness, adolescent agonisings, getting religion and losing it, "Hobson Street Hattie" who has a heart of gold, sensitive intellectuals writing sensitive novels, the war, spiritual crises thereby induced, rural life, Mother Nature, Art and so on. Fairburn mocks at our sentimentalities about "simple ordinary people, their joys and their sorrows, their tears and their smiles". It is a well-aimed little jest.
That was in 1950. Since 1955, however, there has been a major breakthrough in fiction. While the established writers, Courage, Davin, Guthrie Wilson, continued to publish, several new names appeared. Janet Frame, Ian Cross, Ruth France, M. K. Joseph, Sylvia Ashton-Warner have all produced work which is notable by any standards. In addition, 1959-60 alone provided some first novels of promise. Fairburn's Sketch-Plan still has application to much of our current material, but some recent New Zealand novels at least would lie beyond the reach of his mockery. The tide began to run strongly in 1957, with Ian Cross's The God Boy and Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry.
Janet Frame. Janet Frame first came before the public with short stories in the volume The Lagoon, 1951. Their theme was the sense of insecurity, of loss, of exile and homelessness of spirit which the child or the unstable personality may feel among those average folk, however kindly, who must deal with them in everyday living. These stories are compassionate without sentimentality. They are fragmentary, however, and give an impression of imperfect control.
Owls Do Cry, 1957, expands and deepens this tragic understanding. As a novel it is bound together in a structure which resembles music or poetry rather than conventional narrative. There is perhaps some uneasiness in its rapid transitions between realism and' poetic suggestion, but the content and method are so original that it can be judged page 99 only on its own terms. To disapprove, as many readers did, largely because Owls Do Cry is unconventional is to cut oneself off from a valuable experience.
This is the novel for which Robin Hyde was seeking, one which is not "aggressively insular", but is about "something that might have occurred just anywhere in the world of man, woman and child". It is about life, suffering, the death of the heart, about "the second selves of truth". That these things haunted Janet Frame's pages was obvious in The Lagoon; how then to organise them into a coherent artistic vision, one that would have unity, focus, the memorability of co-ordinated impressions?
Janet Frame chooses the life of a family called Withers; one suspects at once a symbol in the name. Bob and Amy, their children Francie and Daphne, Toby and Teresa, live at Waimaru, a setting recognisable down to its smallest detail, with its flour mill, rubbish dump, begonia house, woollen mills, butter factory, and "shovel scoop of a bay". The extraordinary vividness with which this little town leaps to the mind is partly due to the undeceived childlike penetration of the gaze that is turned upon it, and partly to the author's scrupulous selection of detail./Here, then, in this instantly recognisable local scene, are the foundations from which an exploration of the meaning of life will start. The Withers family are not typical New Zealanders, rather they typify human experience. Not all the disasters of sickness, sudden death, mental failure, epilepsy, slow desiccation by middle-class respectability, befall every one of us; but these are all elements in tragic human experience, which is what Janet Frame is writing about.
Chronology, obviously, will not be enough to hold such material together; nor can one point of view be maintained, if the inner life of Toby or Daphne is to be fully evoked. Thus Janet Frame adjusts the angle of presentation to suit her need, not entirely regarding the reader's convenience. It is this constant change of viewpoint, as well as the frequent unforeseen shifts from realism to symbolism, from satire to interior monologue, which make the novel difficult to grasp. One reading is, of course, not enough, any more than one hearing satisfies for a new symphonic work. "It is necessary," remarked Winston Rhodes, "to turn the pages backwards as well as forwards."21
A Fable. A novel like this occupies a place somewhere intermediate between a fable and a fiction. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a fable, concerned to embody and express in concrete terms a preconceived thesis about human life. Fielding's Tom Jones is the novel proper, concerned more to present a reflection of the complexities of life as it is experienced, leaving the thesis, if any, to be inferred from the persons and what happens to them. Fiction deals with individuals, with an experience unique in time and place; fable page 100 generalises such experience into a universal, a symbolic paradigm. (Gulliver's Travels, for instance, or Animal Farm.)
Janet Frame has tried to make a poetic statement which may be felt to be true for all, to make the particular bit of personal history with which she deals stand as a symbol for human experience. The Withers family are to be not merely themselves, New Zealanders with a local habitation and a name, but Man, Woman and Child. That this is so is made clear by the epilogue, where an effect is created of withdrawal from the immediate instance, the immediate realism, into something universal. The poet John Donne wrote, "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee". Janet Frame puts it thus, "And the name was Daphne Withers, though the papers said another name".
The method which she has chosen involves presentation of her material in the usual manner through the third person. Not content with this, however, she has also woven in passages in italics which give either the dream world of some speaker or the twilit mental world of Daphne, who is to see and feel for all of us as the story goes its way. Daphne thus expresses explicitly, in a poetic monologue, what Owls Do Cry means symbolically; she is also a character within the story; she is also very obviously the voice of the author. This is too great a burden to place upon any device of character or plot, and the novel suffers accordingly. In addition the texture of the novel is notable for all sorts of poetic patterns, such as the ' verbal echoes, the clustered images which gather about the treasure trove-rubbish dump, and the fire which "withered" Francie, the first of the family to be destroyed. More closely interwoven and perhaps more effective are the continual poetic references to childish rhymes, to poetry with its non-rational overtones, to objects out of the world of childish magic, and to childish misunderstandings of words and things which suggest other, expanding meanings, in the manner of James Joyce's puns. ("Colander? Calendar? . . . Calendars hang upon the wall ... to collect all the days and months of the year, numbering them, like convicts, in case they escape. Which they do, always. Time flies, said Mrs Withers. And it is calendar, not colander, you silly children.")
A reviewer of The Lagoon expressed the hope that Janet Frame would win through to more control of her form in her later work. Owls Do Cry, however, exhibits the same tendency to fly apart into kaleidoscopic flashing pieces, the same mixture of styles, the same unwillingness to harness a darting, passionate imagination to the restraints of formal prose. Probably one cannot ask the leopard to change its spots, only to make the most of them. What Janet Frame has achieved is inextricably involved with her tragic and disturbingly fragmented vision. (Notes for a critical discussion of Owls Do Cry will be found in the Appendix. See also chapter eight.)page 101
Ian Cross. E. H. McCormick refers to the publication of Owls Do Cry as "explosive"; the same year 1957, however, witnessed another explosion, that made by Ian Cross's The God Boy. This had a notable success in the United States before it reached here. Ian Cross comes from Wanganui, began his career as a journalist on the Dominion, managed a banana plantation on the border of Panama and Costa Rica, edited a newspaper in Panama City, and on his return to New Zealand moved from journalism into work with the Police and Justice Departments. Under the Nieman Fellowship awarded to a New Zealand journalist he studied at Harvard University, where The God Boy first began to take shape. Clearly it has affiliations with American literature about teenage problem children. Equally clearly, it is not an imitation, but something of our own, something homegrown, related like Owls Do Cry to that world of man, woman and child which Robin Hyde knew was the true stuff of literature.
The novel is set in Raggleton, recognisably a North Island coastal town, and narrates the story of the eleven-year-old Jimmy Sullivan, a tough little Catholic, prepared when fate takes its cruel turn to do battle even with God. For God "put one across him" in the disastrous three days before the adult world sent him to the convent for refuge. But Jimmy survives ... "I don't care what else God is going to try on me, but whatever it is, he had better watch his step".
"I don't care" is almost a refrain, highlighting ironically Jimmy's "care" and anguish, the deep unhealing wound which he is anxious to hide, just as he hides his hurt when he is punished at school. The reader, too, "cares", being left with that sense of human endurance which is the basis of tragedy.
Complex Technique. For his story Cross adopted the indirect presentation of his material through the mind of one participant. When that participant is a thirteen-year-old, remembering what he had lived through two years before when he was only eleven, and when the material to be presented is an adult drama which the boy did not understand at the time and does not yet fully understand at the moment of recall, you have complexities which only a skilful navigator can control. Ian Cross does so triumphantly. Jimmy's narration is almost always convincingly in a boy's language, the recorded dialogue brilliantly so, while the childish level of comprehension at which the story moves has a transparency which enables the reader to penetrate to the adult interpretation of what Jimmy saw.
Jimmy's nervous concentration, his love and his terror transfer to the reader, who longs for some saviour to intervene. "A chance in a million for someone like God to step in and give me a helping hand ... if he is such a hot scone why doesn't he do more day-to-day stuff." But no one steps in, not the nuns nor the priests, not Jimmy's sister Molly nor his old pal Bloody Jack, not God himself. Time and page 102 circumstances march inexorably on; Jimmy is driven by the tensions which haunt him to inexplicable acts of rebellion and violence, for which the crisis when it bursts seems to him to be a personal retribution. Yet even his sin and punishment, offered up uncomprehendingly as a sacrifice to save the world which crumbles about him, do not suffice to avert the inevitable. Looking back on it all two years later, he poses the eternal question all men ask at some time or another, Why?
"There's no hiding the fact that in some ways I am dissatisfied with God . . . this from God, and me only little. He could have waited till I got bigger ... If enough people started a mutiny against God, maybe he will sit up and take notice."
Among the ironies of the story is Jimmy's sense that he is a God Boy, "a boy that God has his eye on", because he thought himself elected for special favour, being both clever and good. But God has his eye on Jimmy Sullivan in a different sense, that of having a "down" on him. On the last page there is perhaps a further turn to the sense of "God Boy" when old Sister Francis, repulsed in her endeavour to soften the skin of Jimmy's protective toughness, confesses, "God makes little boys stronger than old women in more ways than one". Jimmy will survive, however damaged; this is also a manifestation of God's ways.
The God Boy is a vital and original little book. It offers various pleasures, among them the recognition of familiar truths and the exploration of assumptions. Above all it is authentically moving. To achieve all this in a short novel concentrated in its focus into the mind of a thirteen-year-old New Zealand boy is a remarkable feat.
The Backward Sex. Second novels are always awaited with some trepidation. Was the first a flash in the pan, or the beginnings of a steady fire? The Backward Sex, 1960, is a book to raise some doubts. For one thing, it is so similar in its material to The God Boy, being the first-person narration of a boy of seventeen. The setting is Albertville, with wharves, lupin-covered sandhills, small town sections, and suburban lives. Its topic is adolescent curiosity about sex, fumbling experiments, and final movement towards maturity. The agent of Robbie's initiation is a red-head divorcee who comes to board in his stepmother's house, distorting thereby the pattern of boy and girl friendships with which he had previously been content.
The marginal material is excellent, as before. Minor characters such as the local constable, the stepmother and the girl friend are accurately observed. The passages between the two boys are particularly good. But is Mrs Rainier, the boarder, credible? As the instrument of Robbie's discovery of himself as a man, she makes the plot tick; but is she anything more than a bit of plot mechanism?
What E. H. McCormick has noted as Ian Cross's "extraordinary page 103 sensitiveness to physical appearances and impressions" is even more noticeable than in The God Boy, partly because this seventeen-year-old narrator, Robbie, though more articulate than Jimmy, is still not one to analyse his feelings in words. Emotions have therefore to be inferred from the many surface details. The book seems in consequence to be one-dimensional, with a disturbing physical emphasis. It is a serious novel, but close to melodrama. (See also chapter eight.)
Sylvia Ashton-Warner. If the publication of Owls Do Cry could be said to make an explosion in 1957, 1958 saw several outbursts quite as exciting. It was a bumper year in fiction. The God Boy reached here from America early, M. K. Joseph's I'll Soldier No More arrived soon afterwards, Spinster burst upon us at mid-year, and Ruth France's The Race just before Christmas.
Spinster was published in England, where it attracted "rave" reviews before New Zealanders ever had a chance to get their hands upon it. It was read therefore here with great interest, and promptly became the centre of vigorous discussions. Was Anna a possible person? Was teaching in an infant room ever like that? Who anyway was Sylvia Ashton-Warner?
Members of the primary teaching service knew the name "Sylvia" as that signed to articles on teaching methods for Maori infants. The author is a teacher with plenty of experience of the type of school and community described in Spinster. Clearly, then, the background was authentic; indeed, its very authenticity led readers astray, in the manner so characteristic of us, into judging the novel as a transcript of fact. As in the visual arts, New Zealanders prefer the pleasures of recognition to those of imaginative exploration. Photographic realism on the whole is more likely to be acceptable to us than transmutation of actuality into a higher and more universal truth. Too many discussions of Spinster ignored its creative aspect.
The spinster of the title is Anna Vorontosov, gifted in art and in music, as in human relationships, but a little balmy. She primes herself each morning with brandy, frequently weeps, talks to trees and flowers, has bursting headaches and exhausting nervous crises, longs for a man and children, yet has refused, long ago, the one who might have comforted her. The school where she is infant mistress offers other menfolk, the Head, married and imperturbable, Paul Vercoe, the not-so-young "pressure cooker" trainee, Abercrombie the inspector. Anna is drawn to them all in turn, without satisfaction.
Thee and Me. But love, the longing for relationships, and the urge to create will not be stifled. They burst out into Anna's teaching life in that prefab classroom among the falling cabbage-tree leaves where day after day she swims in the turbulent noisy brown-and-white sea of infancy. Maori voices beat about her:page 104
'Miss Vottot—Seven he's got a knife! He's cutteen my stomat!'...
'My twin she dong me on the boko.' ...
'Twinnie's cryeen. Who donged you, Twinnie?'...
'I teached him and he won't listen.'...
'Aren't you goin' to wead the B'ue Jug, Mitt Wottot?'. ..
'That's why somebodies they tread my sore leg for notheen.
Somebodies.' . . .
Dennis's lost pencil must be found, Wiki wants "a scissor" to cut out "those leg", Matawhero's shirt must be tucked in, kooties combed from little heads, noses wiped. Bundles of tears and toes and fingers must be picked up and soothed, the prefab dinghy must be kept afloat in all temperamental weathers.
Paul Vercoe makes the same appeal to Anna as do the children she teaches, but without the same unchallenged rights. How can he, who thinks that teaching others is "such a waste of time", understand the pulsing flow that goes "between Thee and Me" in the creative joy of Anna's life? "I teached him and he won't listen." Paul, who can strike one child and dishonour another, can find no outlet for himself in the relationships which the school offers, nor is Anna willing to be drained of her reserves to help him. He blows his brains out, and Anna's dinghy goes tossing on.
The Key. Anna's inefficiencies, her chaotic classroom, her missing rolls, her abandoned work books, are outward matters only. Beneath there is the search for the key which will unlock life for these little brown minds. To what will they respond? Anna listens to their voices.
'What are you crying for, Very Little One?' . . . ('It's always relationship they cry over,' comments Anna.)
Matawhero doesn't draw. He is reading the Blue Jug to Patchy on the steps . . . Matawhero is too closely concerned with the personal relation to do anything with only himself in it. . .
T be your pet, ay,' suggests Riki, climbing upon my knee as I sit on my low chair. T be your pet over all them others . . . ' She wants what she wants and likes what she likes and what she wants and likes is a full measure of Thee and Me . ..
What is the key, then, to such children? What, if it comes to that, is the key to life, for which Anna is searching?
The key for the children is discovered in a flash of perception; it is in the words to which they will respond on the reading book page, the words of their life—fear, ghost, kill, butcher, police, fight, gaol. These, not the Janet-and-John sentimentalities of A Cat on The Mat, will draw the Maori child into the world of written communication with his fellows.page 105
. . . 'What's this word?' asks Tame.
A strange excitement comes over him. He smirks, then laughs outright, says it again, then tugs at Patchy nearby and shows him. 'That's "kiss",' he says emotionally. 'K-I-S-S.'
Patchy lights up too in an extraordinary way. They both spell it. The reading is held up while others are called and told and I feel that something has happened though I don't know what.
The next morning Patchy runs in, his freckles all agog.
T can till pell kitt!' he cries. 'K-i-et-et!'
Anna reflects, "What terrible power there must be in words for little children if we could only tap it and harness it!"
This she does, in the Maori reading books which she writes and illustrates. But her own problems of living are less easy to solve. When her work is not recognised professionally by the grading awards, she abandons it. The end of the novel sees her setting off back to her own land to meet the shadowy Eugene who has at last, it seems, offered to put the question for which Spinster has been craving for so long. The hurt will be healed which was inflicted by "Somebodies", her longing to create will find its fulfilment, and a son, perhaps, will be hers to cherish as another Little One in another land.
This is what Spinster is about. It is not a novel "about how to educate Maori children" (as one teacher-reviewer asserted). It is not an "introduction to the sorrows and joys of country teaching". It is a novel about "man, woman and child" in Robin Hyde's phrase, an exploration of aspects of living, especially as woman and child may know them.
Technique. The technique is that of first-person narration, so that the prose has to carry not only the story, but the impression of Anna's personality and of the personalities of others. Anna comes over clearly, with perhaps too much confessional intimacy. No one else is as plain, but this may be because Anna is interested only in her own reactions, and in the children. The children are masterly; in choric echo, in repeated phrases, incidents and suggestions they are revealed individually while making the musical continuo for Anna's discovery of the key to life.
To order this tumbling chaotic material, Sylvia Ashton-Warner has framed the novel firmly within the round of the seasons, tidied up its ending with a return to the opening pages, and woven the whole together with recurring quotations from the poetry which she, or Anna, or both, love because it expresses their need. The chapter headings, the musical and poetic references, the thematic Maori conversations not only provide the emotional force of the novel, but are elements in its structure.
Opinions. How good is Spinster? Opinions vary in a remarkable way. Here are a few:
"Anna Vorontosov is a major literary creation." (English review.)
"Spinster purports to be a novel, and in her efforts to pretend that what she has to say about how to teach reading is material for a novel the author has had recourse to a whole series of gimmicks ..." (One of the New Zealand educational journals.)
"Spinster cannot be given the highest marks as a novel. It is too uneven." (New Zealand Listener.)
"All this adds up to a recognisable human being. It is true that the reader is occasionally bored by some of her outpourings and irritated by her mawkish habit of nearly always calling children 'little ones', but then Anna in real life would certainly be irritating, and sometimes boring."22 (Landfall.)
"... a loose, rich, rhapsodic work that owes nothing to precedent . . .
"The author has created a highly original—if sometimes extravagantly implausible—character; but her greatest triumph is the evocation in all its fruitful anarchy of the 'pre-fab' battlefield of races, theories, personalities." (E. H. McCormick.)
Take your pick!
(Notes for a critical discussion will be found in the Appendix.)
Idols. Sylvia Ashton-Warner was awarded the New Zealand Literary Fund Scholarship after the publication of Spinster, and set to work on her second novel which appeared first in America in 1960. America had, of course, taken up Spinster in a big way, and Incense to Idols had an equally enthusiastic reception. It is, like Spinster, having a stormy passage in New Zealand.
"One excellent novel is just that; two of them by the same author form strong evidence that the world has another fine writer," said Time.23
Woolf, Woolf! Incense to Idols employs the same first-person narration as Spinster, and its substance pours out from the consciousness of a woman not unlike Anna Vorontosov. This repetition is in itself cause for disquiet; as one English reviewer remarked, "Has the author, perhaps, cried 'Woolf, Woolf too often?"
Germaine de Beauvais, a pianist of note, has improbably left Paris to come to a small New Zealand city—it could be Hastings—in search of her old French maestro. There she exists between cocktails and music in a whirl of sexual obsession. Five men come into the story, four of them destroyed in various ways by their relationship with her. The fifth, the Reverend Guymer, who unpredictably attracts Germaine the most, is relatively untouched, for he has his own obsessions and offers incense to his own idols. He is an eloquent preacher, page 107 in the fulminating prophetic tradition, in love with his God and angry with God's City. Germaine goes to church to hear the music of his voice, reflecting that "there will be no embarrassment of God in a church; not in this century ... for look how full the pulpit is of Man. . . . where is he . . . who can transmit any spirit of God or Baal without transmitting himself more. . . . Even the best of pianists leave something of themselves in the music".
Thus a "genuine sinner" like this woman can go to church "with little moral risk at all" of being converted. In this spirit Germaine attends the services, sinking into "the minor paradise of sound" which Guymer's rhetoric provides. The author draws together these two threads in the pattern of Germaine's story, her passion for him, his passion for God. When Guymer thunders out his attack on the idolaters of the City who burn incense to idols, Germaine reflects, "I'm your City ... I, who squander an inheritance in fashion, wallow in wine, risk life in speed ..."
'Thus saith the Church:
"For three transgressions of New Zealand, and for four,
God may not turn away the punishment hereof.
for we smack each other up every night when the pubs have closed at six,
and in broad daylight we speed head-on upon each other;
we spend multimillions over the years on horses, pubs and possessions, ..." '
Incense to Idols is a novel with serious pretensions. But its style is exasperating beyond even the point at which Germaine's undisciplined flood of sensations is intended to irritate. It is too long, too repetitive, and in places (as in the episode of the baby in the wineglass) incredibly and unnecessarily unpleasant. Though Germaine is clearly meant to be out of emotional control, there is surely hysteria in the writing in excess of what is required to exhibit her neurosis.
Something to Say. But when all this is admitted, there remains the fact that Sylvia Ashton-Warner has something to say. The novel is about conversion, among other things. "Saints should be sinners," reflects Germaine. The Reverend Guymer cannot, therefore, be a saint, because he is too obsessed with his role as prophet to understand sin or suffering when it is before his eyes. When Germaine appeals to him for help, he rejects her. Perhaps, then, in reverse, a sinner can be a saint? Germaine, the worshipper of Baal, has never felt stirring within her the "sparkling insight" which others call a soul; will she discover one? "I have just not known what it is. All I know is that if I ever do become touched with it, it will be through the material and the mortal since with people like me the unseen must be proved by the seen."
This "touching through the material and the mortal" is the substance page 108 of the novel. "God moves in a mysterious way but Baal is admirably clear."
The book carries an epigraph from Job xlii: 5, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee." At the end, this reference is picked up again, as Germaine stumbles up the deserted church into the pulpit and reads the open page of the great Bible; she finds not only verse five, but verse six, "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes". Recalling the sterile sex-obsessed life that lies behind her, she sees that "my whole life I've burnt incense to idols when I could have burnt incense to love", and sinks melodramatically into the oblivion of suicide.
This novel has bored, baffled and angered readers. Some put it down half-read, unable to penetrate the muttered turgid prose in which Germaine's interior monologue is rendered. But it is worth a struggle before you dismiss it. Bell Call, 1964, which employs equally whirling prose, tells of Tarl Prackett, genius-mother and believer in freedom. It is not yet available in New Zealand.
Ruth France— The Race. Ruth France first became known when she won the prize for a Royal Ode for the proposed visit of King George VI. For her poetry she uses the pseudonym of Paul Henderson. She is the wife of an experienced yachtsman, lives at Sumner, and has two sons.
The Race, 1958, is an exploration of moral and emotional stresses in men and in women at a time of crisis. For the men, the revealing test is a stormy passage from Wellington to Lyttelton in the yacht Shadow. For the women, it is the anxious hours of waiting in expectation of disaster, as Shadow is lost from radio contact, and the Pacific winds howl over in a January fury. New Zealanders will recall the actual race on which the story is founded.
Like Spinster, The Race is a book to cause argument. Most reviewers—masculine ones—admire the taut sea drama aboard Shadow as the personalities of skipper Alan, of Bob, Laurie, Con, and Pete clash and expose their lines of strength and weakness. Most, too, admire the rightness of the descriptions of the sea, the technicalities of navigation and sailing so confidently handled. Few of them like the scenes among the womenfolk at home. These have been variously dismissed as "sentimental", "padding", "tiresome interruptions in the flow of an exciting narrative", "flat transcription of irrelevant incidents and commonplace conversations". The present writer—not masculine—ventures to differ, and to assert that these scenes are quite strong enough to complete the balance of the book, quite convincing in their own modest, quiet way, and astonishingly real in their use of domestic detail to suggest emotional strain.
I am reminded of a passage in Katherine Mansfield's At the Bay, where the father of the family, Stanley Burnell, has to be organised page 109 off to the office, and cherished importantly until the last moment. As he drives away he sees young Beryl give a skip and run back to the house:
Into the living-room she ran and called "He's gone!" Linda cried from her room: "Beryl! Has Stanley gone?" Old Mrs Fairfield appeared, carrying the boy in his little flannel coatee.
Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret. Beryl went over to the table. "Have another cup of tea, mother, it's still hot." She wanted, somehow, to celebrate the fact that they could do what they liked now. There was no man to disturb them; the whole perfect day was theirs.
Nothing as good as this appears in The Race, where the writing has not this subtlety. But the observation is as acute; maybe the men are not the best judges of that? The behaviour of the women under strain in The Race seems to me to be finely portrayed; what one reviewer has called "the tea and worry sessions with which the women distract themselves while waiting for their husbands" are just exactly that, relevant, real, truthful in their implications. Ruth France is making artistic use of excellent material. It is never dramatic, this stay-at-home business, and therefore is less easy to conjure up in fiction. The temptation to make it interesting by colouring it brilliantly in the romantic manner has been resisted.
What of the scenes at sea, first printed in Landfall some years earlier? Probably it is true to say that the contrast between old Con, who "loses" himself, and young Laurie, who finds in himself an unexpected strength of will, has not been thought out to its depths; there is something cloudy in the philosophical issues raised by the Shadow's experience, a residue of unexpressed ideas which should have been embodied in more concrete form. Moreover, some passages, delightful in their realistic detail, are of doubtful relevance, the trip on the interisland ferry, for instance. In spite of these flaws, The Race is one of the fine novels of the 1950s. (See also chapter eight.)
New Authors. Early in 1959 another new author appeared, Marilyn Duckworth, with a short novel set in London but having a New Zealand girl for protagonist. A Gap in the Spectrum is a study in odd states of mind, almost clinical in its psychological detail. The heroine loses her memory, and searches London to find herself, her parents, her identity. There is a good picture of the loneliness of the big city for one from far away, and a number of striking grotesque episodes, including one in a mental hospital. The heroine's puzzlement, page 110 however, remains a barrier to the reader also, and one is left wondering what, if anything, the novel is about.
The Matchbox House followed in 1960. This is stronger meat. Mrs Dobie, housewife with a baby and a philandering husband, minds the three children of a friend who is ill. Their father visits them weekly. In the neurotic context of Mrs Dobie's manoeuvres to attract him, the story thrashes along. Something is conveyed of the mental and emotional fog which day-to-day coping with insistent children can induce, something is expressed of the nastiness of neurotic obsessions. But the artistic purpose and direction of the book are far from certain. This kind of subject, humourless, and set in the half-light of peripheral states of mind, is one peculiarly difficult to assess. Is this pretentious stuff-and-nonsense, or a genuine attempt to express a "private vision"? By awarding Marilyn Duckworth the Scholarship in Letters for 1961, the New Zealand Literary Fund has indicated its view that these books are of value. (See also chapter eight.)
Two Firsts. Just before Christmas 1960 two novels by new writers came from English publishing houses. Noel Milliard's Maori Girl is the first full-length story of the modern Maori which we have had; Frances Keinzly's Tangahano is in the tradition of Jane Mander, being a study of the collapse of a marriage under the special conditions offered by the mushroom settlements of the dam-builders on the Waikato River.
Maori Girl. Noel Hilliard is known for short stories, mostly on Maori themes. The opening of this novel evokes with clarity the look, the sound, the atmosphere, of a Maori child's life on a farm somewhere in Taranaki. Haki Samuel had wrenched a farm out of the kahikateas at Mokamokai, and founded a family. There were nine children, two given away to relatives. Netta, the girl of the story, was born at the beginning of the depression.
Maori Girl is another item in our literature of protest; rightly, David Hall has drawn attention to its kinship with Children of the Poor. These Samuels are our new poor, partly because of the depression, partly because of their race. Hilliard gives a memorable, easy, natural picture of the family and community life at Mokamokai in part one, setting the background of training, character and experience against which the later inevitable disaster is to be acted. In part two, Netta, tired of cows, gumboots, and the beer-swilling local boys, sets off for the big city. She trails with increasing discouragement from lodging to lodging; she seeks friends and the warmth of company where it is offered her, not always desirably; she meets only those among the Pakeha who live in the good-time world of jobs easily taken, easily lost. Hotel work, restaurant work provide money which she cannot manage, but no emotional centre. When finally some stability in a page 111 relationship is offered by the casual Arthur, she makes a home with him in a slum and awaits the baby which is coming.
"Fourteen people lived in the house, including five married couples, each in a single room, and a year-old baby. They all shared one bathroom, one small washhouse, and one lavatory."
Arthur, equally insecure, finds to his astonishment that he is putting down roots:
"He nailed a box for the milk bottles to the crazy-fence at the front, and he put up a rough shelf to hold the knick-knacks ... on Friday nights they went shopping together, arms linked, Arthur carrying the string kits . . ."
When, in this newly found urge to settle, he protests to the authorities about housing conditions, Netta's boss, who is landlord as well, turns her out instantly; before this can be known to Arthur, he reacts in illogical fury to his chance discovery that the child is not his, rejecting Netta with a deadly insult:
" 'Black!—you're as black as the bloody ace of spades.' "
The rest of Netta's story can be imagined; Hilliard tells it with speed and enough restraint to make it really moving.
This is, of course, a "preaching" novel, but its thesis springs fairly naturally from its realistic detail, which is rendered with some skill. This new submerged tenth of our towns needs a new Sargeson to interpret for it. If Hilliard can develop his art, he should go far, for he has the knowledge, as well as a controlling moral intention. (See also chapter eight.)
Tangahano. Frances Keinzly is also a writer of promise. Her plot mechanism in Tangahano creaks badly, especially the hackneyed contrivance by which the father is drawn back into the family so that a romantic happy ending may be clearly in sight on the final page. The writing too, is in the romantic tradition, relying overmuch upon the colourful adjective. For example, look at the account of the roadside fruit stalls passed as Kathy and her family motor south from Auckland, "... set out to display red satin strawberries, red velvet tomatoes, red shot-silk apples ..." One is reminded of the adjectival excess which clogged Jane Mander's prose in the opening chapter of The Story of a New Zealand River, and on which Katherine Mansfield passed a caustic comment. Similar descriptions later in the book are more effective, however, being there to evoke the atmosphere of the dam settlement. Slashed into the bush and the earth beside the swift river, unnatural, rootless, it is like the people who must live there, without tradition.
Kathy, brought to this alien place by a husband who needs the high wages, makes a home out of a shack in spite of fate; but the hard driving force which she exerts in order to do so undermines her marriage. The novel is an analysis of this development, in which the people page 112 of the place as well as the casual raw vitality of the environment play an important part.
Dessert. A refreshing lightweight story is Robin Muir's Word for Word, 1960, which makes a piquant final titbit for this series of discussions, since it deals with the trials of a New Zealand printing and publishing house.
Though one hesitates to assert that all our publishers behave like these, the book provides an amusing version of the popular image of the literary world. We are shown the breathless haste of production, the unpredictable vagaries of public preference, and the personal eccentricities of our local Grub Street. Word for Word runs on a current of witty, heartless, shallow dialogue, with a probable debt to Evelyn Waugh, and will certainly amuse. Particularly welcome is its deflating refusal to mount on any rhetorical high horses.
Established? This study of the New Zealand novel in its first hundred years has revealed our persistent urge to get the people and the country on to paper. The task has not proved easy. Nobody realised until the 1930s quite how difficult it was to pioneer a new literature. Like the early settlers, our early writers were content to transfer the plants of European culture to the local scene, without realising the differences which a new environment might impose. Nor did they reckon sufficiently with the possibilities of native growth.
The resulting discrepancies between fact and fiction, between the reality and the convention, did not become fully obvious until the third generation of native writers was in its maturity. Earlier voices of protest—Katherine Mansfield's or Jane Mander's—were no more than individual cries.
But those who grew up with Robin Hyde effected a change in our state of mind. As she knew, her generation had discovered their real identity, and found ways of expressing that experience in works of the imagination. The natural conservatism of the reading public, together with the retarding effect of the war, held us back for a while from appreciating just what the 1930s achieved. Now it is possible to see that those were the years in which the New Zealand novel began to take root. It may be too soon to say that the plant is now established, but it is a native, tough, resilient, and it is doing well. The present climate seems favourable, the soil is certainly fruitful.
Recently, the crop has been of high quality. Moreover, there seems to be an expanding market for the product; perhaps we can look ahead with some confidence to the next one hundred years.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)