On the Beach at Stresa, in 'The Wheatsheaf' in Soho.
That phrase, 'intimations of a world beyond', was a troubling one, at least for Sargeson. We all know how his two years in Europe variously carried with it a run of disappointments, glimpses of what he yearned for, the whiff of promise rather than anything like fulfilment. His wide reading and intellectual reach, not to mention his hopes to write, had prepared him for Europe; yet the necessary return to the narrowness and strictures that had so urged him to leave convinced him of what may never have occurred to him, had he stayed on like the fairly repellent Hector Bolitho, or the emotionally isolated James Courage--the realisation that however stunting life back here may seem, it was nevertheless in attending to its so-far unrecorded gradations, its cast of mind and its linguistic turns, that he would find what he needed as a writer--his subject. It was only being here at home that offered the possibility' of doing what no one else had done, and could not be done anywhere else.
Davin recalled how he had been given a copy of Sargeson's stories by a friend in North Africa in 1943, and saw at once what it was he had brought off, finding a voice for a society' that was close to being inarticulate. And as Davin astutely picked up, possibly because it pointed him back to a writer so important to himself,
[Sargeson] may have learned [...] from James Joyce's Dubliners the way to make characters use the language of their speech as the vehicle of their endless conversation with themselves [...]. He wanted his stories to do what Dostoevsky's Poor People had done, reveal a whole submerged unacknowledged life, reveal it from within. The universal could look after itself. (3)
Davin's own first novel, Cliffs of Fall, written just before the war, and published just after it, had tried to run Joyce and Dostoevsky together in an uneasy antipodean mix, so it was not surprising when he praised Sargeson in quite these terms. English reviewers picked up the novel's weaknesses, but generously noted its promise. But at home the book came close to being vilified, although as Sargeson told Eric McCormick, he found this new voice as he read it for the first time, a 'real explosion', even if the fiction itself did not yet match the talent. (4) Later, when he wrote to Davin for the first time in 1947, noting 'the wonderful advance' he had made in For the Rest of Our Lives, it was with the dry compliment, 'After Cliffs of Fall I never expected to become your devoted reader, but I am that now'. (5)
When Davin took up A Man and his Wife through the North African Campaign, he too had been startled:
At once on opening it I saw someone had made my discovery [about the vitality of colloquial New Zealand speech] before me, and someone with a perfect ear. And I saw, too, that the special quality of the language lay not only in its bold colloquial tropes or an occasional local usage but informed every element of the spoken idiom. Here in Sargeson were the same characters to be met around one every day in the desert and using the same terms, the same patterns of thought and speech. (6)
Davin's first reading Sargeson in the totally male world of the New Zealand army may put one in mind of another writer's meeting up with his countrymen in North Africa, although unlike Davin, John Mulgan had stayed with the British Army almost to the point of court martial, and so for him there was the frisson of surprise. Although how much more lyrical Mulgan, that master of understatement, seems to be than either of his contemporaries in assessing the society they came from, while noting the idiom that so preoccupied the three of them. 'Moving in a body', as he writes of the New Zealanders,
detached from their homeland, they remained quiet and aloof and self-contained. [...] It seemed to me, meeting them again, friends grown a little older, more self-assured, hearing again these soft inflected voices, the repetitions of slow, drawling slang, that perhaps to have produced these men for this one time would be New Zealand's destiny. (7)
But then the circumstances of Mulgan's writing those sentences, with their classical poise and intent, was very different from anything either Sargeson or Davin ever had in mind, and all the more telling, even if for non-literary reasons, if one accepts, as I do, that as he wrote those sentences in his last weeks in Athens, he already had decided to end his life, once his memoir was complete.
We may remember how the artistic challenge Sargeson and Davin faced, how to talk as we actually talk, had been taken in Man Alone to the point where nothing could be said at all. Think of Johnson sailing from Auckland at the end of the novel, when talk quite literally has run out, because so has any sense of communal life. It is only when returning to Europe and listening to political argument for the first time, that Johnson moves back into a more inclusive humanity. It may seem a simple conclusion to Man Alone, but it is ethically a satisfying one, 'going somewhere with people I liked, doing something together'. (8) Had it not been for his meeting with O'Reilly, a man who had fought with the IRA and worked with unions in Detroit, and who now offered him the chance to fight for republicanism with its intelligent camaraderie, Johnson's story would have ended where Mulgan originally intended it to conclude--with the Beckett-like silence of exhausted possibility. As he watched the last of New Zealand from a ship's deck, and another man spoke to him, 'Johnson nodded. He had done with talking for the time being'. (9)
All part of that problem, again, that Sargeson and Davin believed they shared--how to give a voice, how to find the appropriate narrative style in which to present their fellow countrymen, their reticence, their awkwardness with emotion, their fear of imagination, a task made the harder perhaps by the fact that there was so much about them that the two writers so disliked. Curiously, it was Sargeson's view that Davin's intellect might be his artistic impediment. When in 1956 he read his new novel, The Sullen Bell, his response again was fairly muted:
What degree of achievement this book represents considered purely as a novel I don't know. Perhaps the novel is not wholly your cup of tea. (I doubt whether it is for anyone with an exceptionally powerful mind, except in the case of towering people such as Tolstoy). (10)
Unravel that sentence, and it becomes both a compliment and the reverse of one, rather like that unintentionally comic academic remark one still sometimes hears, that so-and-so is too clever to publish. In this case, too clever to be a novelist, although this doesn't apply to those who do it well. He mentions 'the concentrated intensity' of Cliffs of Tall, which both men knew was a failure, yet also astutely notes, 'perhaps where your art is concerned, first and foremost your best work is in some of the short stories'. What this unpublished letter goes on to imply is that being an intellectual, in the formal, trained sense Davin was, was a disadvantage if one wrote novels, but OK for something less. A trained mind may be the very thing that prevents what Sargeson calls 'the free play etc of character etc' which good novels demand. (11) Of course, there's a fine irony after the event, in the fact that even as he wrote in July 1956, 'a very sweet girl' as Sargeson calls her, 'a very wise girl', was at that moment living in his backyard, writing in Owls Do Cry the kind of fiction that for the moment neither of them might conceive of.
There is no one else Sargeson shared this kind of exchange with quite as he does with Davin. And behind so much of it, rather faded in intensity as far as we are concerned, but central to his immediate thinking, was the question, how does a writer like himself relate to what we might as well call 'the great tradition' of English fiction, at the same time as trying to present a world, or at least fragments of a world, that tradition seemed so distant from? As Wallace Stevens summed it up in his great poem about colonialism, 'The Comedian as the Letter C', how to declare that 'starker, barer self/In a starker, barer world'? And there is the inevitable challenge, after reading so very widely as Sargeson had done, of having to put all that to one side, as it were, in talking about ourselves as no one else had quite done.
This challenge explains the awkwardness we are aware of in some of his early stories, when the voice of the author cannot help but butt in on the tone of the narration, letting you know that a European or an English reference is relevant at this point, and yet to say so buckles the telling as the roots of a sycamore, say, might buckle a North Shore pavement; the awkwardness of the narrator referring to Chesterton say, or even Ezra Pound, because Sargeson knows about them, as his characters in their own person are unlikely to have known. And so this other discomfort he felt to some extent with Davin. He knew this matter of authenticity, of getting his own street right, you could say, was because he stayed at home and wrote about those next door, while those who went away and stayed away, wrote back about New Zealand, and not from it. It is something like this I meant to suggest in the title for this talk.
At the beginning of Davin's Closing Times, his marvellous memoir of writers who also were close friends, he recalls an evening not long before the end of the war. He was sitting in his New Zealand uniform in a literary pub called 'The Wheatsheaf' in Soho. He knew nobody, and was condescended to by an aggressive metropolitan. 'I waited, and drank alone. After so long among soldiers and my countrymen, I had become a provincial again, pining for the society of writers but knowing no way of breaking into their company'. (12) But he waited, and he did. But against that, and the story of Davin's entree into British literary life, think of the young Sargeson, walking, mostly alone, through France and Italy, and one day spotting his earliest hero, George Bernard Shaw, sitting under an umbrella on the beach at Stresa, reading a book. A few years ago I wrote a poem about it. There may be a certain appropriateness in reading it here. It is, I suppose, a kind of half-embarrassed tribute to that provincialism Davin felt constrained by, and Sargeson felt called to, as if to a vocation. 'As Some of Us Thought', then:
Bernard Shaw sat on a beach at Stresa and Frank Sargeson saw him, reading a book--an anxious colonial walking-across Europe holiday moment. There is always a famous man under an awning. We look but seldom speak, we turn and walk back to a hillside albergo, the town costs so much. We have hitched in Sargeson's knapsack for ninety years. I've friends who still circle one Shaw or another, Sussing fame out. We shouldn't though be anywhere near Stresa. We don't own a beach umbrella. We don't have the words. Frank, we want to say, talk to us, will you, after lights out. Talk a bit about home.
For all their regard for each other, the distance between the solitary walker, too shy to speak to a famous author, and the young officer certain such conversations were his to take part in, continued to colour their friendship. Mind you, it was not the urbane Oxonian who sprang to Sargeson's mind when they met in person: 'it doesn't seem quite right that he should be at Oxford--I can better imagine him as a very rich and successful Chicago Irish thug'. (13) Davin, for his part, thought there was something 'boyish' about his host, with his 'slightly goblin eyes, an animated, sensitive mouth', and 'that light New Zealand accent that I had come to associate with Aucklanders in the New Zealand Division'. (14) At that first meeting they argued amicably about whether it was better to be meagre and 'costive', as Davin called it, with one's writing, or to be for copiousness and fluency, as he believed he was himself. Sargeson said a man should forge a single distinctive style; Davin countered for a writer attempting several styles, 'choosing from them which best suited the occasion and the theme'. (15) They would come back to such questions when they met in Wellington in September 1958 for a shared radio talk on 'The New Zealand Writer and his Craft', but no copy of the talk survives. Some of those who heard the conversation thought Davin 'seemed to over-ride Sargeson, who was characteristically tentative and elusive'. Jim Bertram, a friend of both, thought Davin had 'patronised' the older writer, although Sargeson himself seemed not to think so. (16)
But that term again, 'provincial', which Davin thought we should escape, as much as Sargeson believed it was to that we should immediately attend. At first Davin had been rather taken aback by the sheer breadth of Sargeson's reading, his command and recall of texts he had come to not as a scholar but as an autodidact, and which the Oxford publisher found he could not quite match. But in Sargeson's company he also felt, and continued to feel when he spoke of it thirty-odd years later, that he was rather letting the side down, and couldn't help but do so, because he had opted out of being a true New Zealand writer. It stayed in his mind that
Frank had known well the generation of writers just before my own--people whom I would have known had I not left New Zealand. This talk reminded me a little of conversations in Cairo or in Bari when I ran into old friends after I had left them for a job on the staff. One had a slightly deprived and self-reproachful sense of having been absent from where the action was. Perhaps that was what Frank, a subtle man, meant me to feel: a sense of the penalties of expatriation. (17)
And so to another loaded word, one of the most damning in Sargeson's arsenal, especially when applied to the first woman he may have lost sleep over. It was alright to talk about the War, but don't mention feminine writing, and don't mention Mansfield. Which of course Davin inevitably did, and in conjunction with speaking of Sargeson at the same time, when he wrote the Introduction for the Oxford World Classics New Zealand Short Stories in 1953.
As both publisher and critic, Davin was respected as much for his tact as his fair-mindedness. Both certainly were called for in the editing of what now seems a straightforward enough collection. Davin knew it was a job likely to draw the high-calibre accuracy of friendly fire. Hence his craftily asking both Sargeson and Eric McCormick to guide him in his editorial choice. The two pernickety Aucklanders even mildly fell out, over whether to include Anton Vogt and Dennis McEldowney, whom the short story writer wanted in, and the historian did not. Davin sided with Sargeson. And part of Davin's deft editorial balancing act was to include two stories by only two writers--'At the Bay' and 'The Voyage' by Mansfield, and 'Last Adventure' and 'The Making of a New Zealander' by Sargeson. A similar finely-calibrated tact pervades Davin's Introduction. His edition later in the same year of Mansfield's Selected Stories makes it clear how he read her with great sympathy, and how highly he rated her. But in this other volume, prepared more specifically for a New Zealand audience, and necessarily with an ear finely attuned to what might be called the politics of the Home Front, the editor made it clear that there were only two writers worth especial attention, and this was not the place to make a deciding call between the leader of the pack, and the girl who got it right, at another time. 'To the New Zealand eye at least it will be plain that Auckland--urban or rural--has been sharply observed by Sargeson, Finlayson, Texidor, Ballantyne. Katherine Mansfield's is a Wellington not yet changed beyond recognition'. A little later they are brought together again in the same paragraph, with Davin again avoiding anything that might smack of preference, as he notes 'the prestige conferred on the form by Katherine Mansfield, the example of tenacious devotion and careful craftsmanship set by Frank Sargeson'.
Yet when, looking across the selection he has just made--or rather, made under the guidance of Sargeson and McCormick--he asks is there such a thing as the New Zealand short story, meaning a specifically definable form, his answer is 'probably not'. He then says what of course Sargeson would so enjoy hearing said: 'It would be provincial of us, if not parochial, to claim that Katherine Mansfield learnt her art anywhere but in Europe'. (20)
I think many of us now would not agree with Davin--although Sargeson most certainly did--in his dismissal of those early stories where, in her own marvellous phrase in 'The Woman at the Store', 'the savage spirit of the country walks abroad'; stories with settings so much harsher than anything family life in Thorndon might offer her, as in some sense inauthentic. It escaped Davin, as much as it did Sargeson, that what she is evolving here is what she already has learned from Impressionism, whether from paintings she has looked at, or the kind of short stories she may have come across in Conrad, or perhaps Barbara Baynton--ways to achieve realism by other means than anything her younger compatriots would have recognized by the term. But what may seem strangely distant to us now, as we read Davin's Introduction sixty years further on, is the essay's concluding celebration of the sense of communal values he found in the stories he has brought together, their post-Lawsonian mateship, their almost cosy neighbourliness. This strikes me as something the editor was imposing hopefully on the country he had left, a kind of valedictory' tribute to what he knew he was no longer part of, and to the New Zealanders of his war years who so shaped his thinking of it. It was a paragraph that Sargeson, I imagine, would have endorsed, with his own inflection of male bonding, with women as part of an adjunct world rather than a shared one.
Yet glance at the contents of that anthology where the two friends were in such accord. There is one story which is the tip of the fuse to what will, in time, effectively blow that last paragraph apart, as well as so much that the writing of both men assumes as the verities of both style and subject. It is a story that runs counter to every' story in the book apart from Mansfield's, which did not derive from Modernism, so much as help define it as she wrote. It was only at the last minute that the editor and his advisers decided to include Janet Frame's 'The Day of the Sheep', so unlike anything else in the book. For it would be Frame who most effectively undermined what Sargeson thought of as the legitimately evolving shape of New Zealand fiction. (Although, at this point, may I note as an aside, and regardless of recent popular distortions, my finding Sargeson's long letter to Denis Glover about Janet Frame in March 1956 the most succinct and compelling account of her that I know. (21) A point as I say worth making, when it seems to have become almost a fashion to play Frank down as the not quite bright enough straightman to Janet's shimmering clarity). But it would be the author of that last story decided on for the anthology who, in her eventual subverting of whatever it is we may mean by realism, also scooped out Davin's claim to neighbourly good intentions to an appalling human hollowness. For Frame, as much as for Thatcher, society does not exist.
But to return to our men of the Fifties, and the woman who for one of them most certainly was more trouble than she was worth, and to that burning question, so important at the time, for us now so little more than a curio of our literary history'. Which side were we on when
it came down to assessing Mansfield, thirty years after her death--touchstone, or millstone?
At a recent conference on the Edinburgh edition of Mansfield's Complete Fiction, Janet Wilson gave an incisive paper on Sargeson's troubled fascination with the Karori schoolgirl. Sarah Shieff's edition of his letters throws out one incendiary spark after another. As early as 1939, he was writing to John Lehmann, his English friend and publisher, 'Our Kathie has had a bad influence on people who try to write out here. Our kicking-off point should have been something resembling Huckleberry Finn. [...] But Kathie, who should have been born in England and only come out here on comfortably conducted tours, has led practically everyone down the garden path'. (22) Letters and interviews for the next thirty years are larded with such expressions of distaste--as well, it must be said, with some sharply accurate observations, such as his first hitting on just how much Mansfield owed to her reading of fairy stories, and the problem she had with how working-class New Zealanders spoke. But what strikes one most is the note of personal animus when her name comes up--this is the way living writers talk about each other, rather than how they usually engage with the dead they may not much care for. This is Frank and Katherine slanging it out, rather than Sargeson and Mansfield disputing the odd point of difference. It would take a lot more time than we have here to untangle the threads of what passed in this one-sided exchange with his femme noir. But I doubt that there is much in his correspondence with Davin that was such music to Sargeson's ear as the way in which he was complimented on his scene of driving sheep in I Saw in my Dream, a scene which 'reduces Katherine Mansfield's sheep in Prelude and At the Pay which I've always admired, to literary lady's dream palaver'. (23)
As Janet Wilson reminds us, and others too have done, Sargeson 'deliberately discarded his early attempts at modernist writing, in the manner of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, and turned to American working-class models'. (24) As Davin's own early writing made clear, it wasn't easy to line up Joyce with what New Zealand writers might be looking for. Yet Joyce, need one say, provided a Southland Catholic with an entry into working-class fiction, in a way that he could not possibly have done for a Waikato Methodist. The speech patterns of Davin's Southland characters are often closer to Joycean turns of phrase and cadence than they are to what Sargeson attempted in his version of North Island vernacular. Similarly, when Mansfield is judged severely by Davin as much as by Sargeson for not getting working-class speech right, it is not irrelevant to keep in mind that what she listened to, forty years earlier, in many cases was still the speech of English working-class immigrants, or how that already had been modified by Australia. More Australians came to New Zealand in the 1890s than New Zealanders went there--including, of course, Henry Lawson. You have to have a sharp ear to pick up the difference between Lawson's New Zealand and Australian characters, say, possibly because Lawson himself didn't note much difference, just as he didn't distinguish as sharply as we might expect between here and there as two countries, so much as different states of that vague entity 'Australasia'. Remember both of Mansfield's parents were Australian-born, so I'm a touch sceptical about her Thorndon families being represented as so English. Her beloved grandmother was Tasmanian, and had lived in Taranna, on the road to Port Arthur. Mansfield dropped one of those 'n's' when she renamed Tinakori Road as Tarana Street, with her ardent followers still reaching at times for the wrong dictionary'. Those backblock stories which we now like to think are so drenched with an atmosphere that is, to take Curnow's phrase, 'recognizably New Zealand', have settings where historically one would have heard a mix of Cockney and other English accents, as well as Australian and local-born. I think both Sargeson and Davin may indeed have been thinking too immediately of the speech they heard in their own contemporaries, when the editor spoke of 'her failure to use their idiom in convincing dialogue'. (25) But I too am speaking in a fog of ignorance on this. It is really something for linguistic historians to guide us on. And from Sargeson's perspective, I suspect that it is Mansfield's Wellington family being middle-class that finally disqualifies her from being 'genuinely' New Zealand.
And all pretty much a peripheral matter to us now, when the tide has long gone out on such worries. But it was massively important to Sargeson, and to a lesser degree for Davin, when in the writing of both, it seemed important to keep the middle-class at bay, which for Sargeson also meant keeping his own writing free from the corrosive seep of modernism--a fact about Mansfield which Robin Hyde saw very clearly, and very early. Only six years after Mansfield's death, she smartly noted how 'most of her tales were written in a subtle foreign language which is not yet fully understood out here [...] the language of twentieth century art'. (26)
But if class was one of Mansfield's threatening pincers, the other was what we might call the sweeping sickle of her gender threat. Decades after his own literary' concerns and methods had moved so far since those early years of his friendship with Davin, Sargeson still spoke of how 'Mansfield imposed this feminist thing on New Zealand. [...] [She] imposed a pattern on our writing so that everyone was impressed and hosts of young women wrote Mansfield stories' (27). Well, perhaps not as many as he made out, and not so many as the young men of the time who were trying to write like him. As Wilson reminds us, Sargeson was stung for a long time by the fact that in 1936 his story 'An Affair of the Heart' was runner-up in the Auckland Star's short story competition, to an anonymous KM look-alike. What if this sort of thing began to dominate our writing? As she put it, 'Sargeson was never more effective in his self-appointed role as gatekeeper of the local literary' culture than in manoeuvring Mansfield out of public focus on the grounds that her influence might move the entire national culture in the "wrong"--i.e. impressionist--direction'. (28)
But in this matter of what most convincingly sounds like us, and how we are best to be presented if the ring of 'true New Zealand' is what we are after, I'd like for a moment to look at how another writer came at this, one close in some respects to both Davin and Sargeson, yet rather remote from both. Although Davin and Mulgan will always be associated to some extent because of their proximity' as editors at Oxford University' Press, and because one finished, after the war, the little crammer on Eng. Lit. that the other had begun before its start, we have no idea of what Mulgan may have thought of Sargeson, if anything at all. The one place he may have come across him would have been in copies of Tomorrow that his father, a close friend of the art editor Kennaway Henderson, sent on to him in Oxford. If he read those short seminal sketches, he did not say so in the letters where he touched on how recent New Zealand work had struck him.
Sargeson, for his part, mentioned Mulgan infrequently. He told Eric McCormick in 1950 that when he re-read Mulgan's one novel, he was much impressed. 'Surely one can now see that Johnson is approaching the status of a pretty effective symbol. I think part of the merit of the book is in its [...] simplicity. Simplicity out of simplicity'. (29) Sargeson thought too that what he and Mulgan had in common, and John A. Lee as well, was their being drawn to the outcast, the waif, as 'the persistently recurring myth for the colonial' (30)--a figure, incidentally, which in another place he saw at the centre of Mansfield's fiction. He was not of course to know that Mulgan himself had come to dismiss the novel because of that simplicity. As he wrote from Belfast to Charles Brasch in an unpublished letter in 1940, where he said he felt more at home among what he called 'the Irish of the unregenerate north' than he did with New Zealanders, 'I feel myself it was formless, unpractised and to be honest, a little dull. But I didn't have any sense of affectation in writing it, which was a satisfaction to me'. (31)
There is little question of influence in either direction between Mulgan and Sargeson. Yet that phrase, the closest I suppose Mulgan ever came even to low-key boasting--'I didn't have any sense of affectation', in its way draws them close. So much in fact of what we may think of as vintage Sargesonian attitudes in the 1950s were spelled out, a touch belligerently even, in a brief essay the twenty-year-old Mulgan wrote in the student magazine Kiwi in 1932. What the essay had in its sights was his friend James Bertram, whose own journal Phoenix reverently drew on Middleton Murry's publication The Adelphi, thus staking its claim as well for Mansfieldian credentials.
Bertram's literary touchstones were modernism and aesthetic quality, which rose above the contingencies of time or place. What else, Phoenix implied, might promote among ourselves the culture we so clearly lacked? Mulgan was having none of that. He agreed, at least, that what he calls 'the salvation of the country' lies with those 'who must compose and paint and write as New Zealanders'--but wait for the landmine he has placed in the rest of that sentence: 'and it does not really matter how badly they do these things. Beyond them there must be a public who will study their work however poor it is, and will allow it to develop without invidious comparison. [...] Culture is of necessity individual and our national culture must be as individual as the country from which it springs'. (32) The argument is the one that will sustain Sargeson's own hard graft ten and twenty years further on. It is the nature of the people which calls the shots, rather than imported attempts to make up for what they lacked. And yet, it is precisely here that Mulgan, so seemingly close to Sargeson, also veers off towards, of all people, Mansfield.
You may recall how in that vivid section of Man Alone when Johnson crosses the Rangipo Desert, and then the Kaimanawa Range, confronting 'a great solitude' (33) within himself, the narrative refers to birch trees and supplejack and wood pigeons, but there is nothing that linguistically signals New Zealand more specifically. Because to do that is not one of the things Mulgan wants to do. Its absence in fact is an artistic choice. As he had written in that student essay, '[an] attempt to gain a native born atmosphere has mired most New Zealand novels to date, and it is to be regretted that reviews and public should continue to ask for it'. (34)
The very point, in fact, that Mansfield had made when she reviewed Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River in 1920. She quotes a sentence that names puriris and kahikateas and titoki. Then she asks, 'what picture can that possibly convey to an English reader? What emotion can it produce?' (35) It is the view that the young Mulgan, quite unaware of the review, instinctively shares with her as a fellow writer. But there is the imperative of convincing realism as well. For Johnson simply could not have known the names of what he passes through and observes, any more than most of his readers would--the point of Mansfield's stricture. But what she does praise Mander for are those occasions when she has the confidence to trust what she knows about the people of her own country, when she writes of 'her characters mov[ing] simply, almost violently', moments when we are suddenly conscious 'of agony or simplicity'. It is Mulgan's point too. 'It is the men and women that will make a novel great--not descriptions of bush scenery, and the true native atmosphere will come through them, not from the things outside them'. (36) As Mansfield and Mulgan agree, it is by getting your people right. Which of course is where Sargeson and Davin join in, with their own convictions of how this is to be achieved.
May I conclude then, not as you probably think of me as a superannuated academic, but simply as a writer. If what I've been saying has muddied the waters a little as we think about our writing forebears, then good. We are not part of a straightforward, consistent stream, although one might think at times that critical discourse would rather like us to be. As Sargeson's admirer, E. M. Forster, put it a long time ago, as writers we sit in an ever-expanding circle, rather than joining a line in order of merit. (37) What I have had in mind as, in Yeats's phrase in 'Easter 1916', 'we murmur name upon name' in honouring those who variously define us--Mansfield, Mulgan, Sargeson, Davin--is that sooner or later, in reading one, we may find ourselves also thinking of the other, diverted even by their hallooing across the same paddocks. Or across the same reading room, if such an enormity can be conceived of.
That part of the conversation I've spent a little time on, the exchange between Sargeson and Davin in particular, is a fragment only of what they had to say to each other in those fifty-odd letters from Takapuna to Oxford, and the more than fifty sent back. There is the touching fear in some of them that the writer may think more highly of his books than others do, and the equally touching certainty that his own estimate is correct. In both men there is a tough sense of vocation, and a fretting at that most damaging of facts, the need to make money. But in neither is there the note of self-pity, or the sense of being owed a living. What is constant, and what so attracts one, is the pulse of engaged and living minds. Whether what they say is 'right' is a trivial question. This is life we're talking about, not an exam. And if one considers it any comfort, the wheels of academe will continue to roll, whether or not Frank strewed Esmonde Road with shards of glass specifically for them.
(1) 'On the Beach at Stresa, in "The Wheatsheaf ' in Soho' is the text of the 11th annual Frank Sargeson Memorial Lecture, presented at the University of Waikato on 30 October 2013. JNZL acknowledges the University of Waikato's support for this event. [Ed.].
(2) Keith Ovenden, A Fighting Withdrawal: The Life of Dan Darin, Writer, Soldier, Publisher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 243.
(3) From a manuscript draft of 'A Sad and Savage World', Davin's anonymous appreciation of Sargeson, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, 17 June 1965, 494. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-5079-131.
(4) Frank Sargeson to E. H. McCormick, 25 December 1945, letters of Frank Sargeson, ed. by Sarah Shieff (Auckland: Vintage, 2012), p. 89.
(5) Frank Sargeson to Dan Davin, 24 November 1947. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-5079-131.
(6) Dan Davin, 'The Narrative Technique of Frank Sargeson', The Puritan and the Waif: A Symposium of Critical Essays on the Work of Frank Sargeson', ed. by Helen Shaw [Auckland: H. L. Hofmann, 1955], p. 56.
(7) John Mulgan, Report on Experience , ed. by Peter Whiteford (London: Frontline Books; Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010), p. 50.
(8) John Mulgan, Man Alone  (Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade, 1949), p. 205.
(9) Man Alone, p. 186.
(10) Frank Sargeson to Dan Davin, 20 July 1956. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-5079-131.
(11) Frank Sargeson to Dan Davin, 20 July 1956. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-5079-131.
(12) Dan Davin, Closing Times (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 3.
(13) Frank Sargeson to Alec Pickard, 10 October 1948, letters, p. 110.
(14) Dan Davin, 'Three Encounters Thirty Years Ago', Islands, 21 (March 1978), 302-306 (p. 303).
(15) Dan Davin, 'Three Encounters Thirty Years Ago', p. 303.
(16) For an account of this conversation, see Michael King, Frank Sargeson: A Life (Auckland: Viking, 1995), p. 296.
(17) Dan Davin, 'Three Encounters Thirty Years Ago', p. 304.
(18) Dan Davin, Introduction, New Zealand Short Stories (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 2.
(19) Dan Davin, Introduction, p. 4.
(20) Dan Davin, Introduction, p. 6.
(21) See Frank Sargeson to Denis Glover, 3 March 1956, letters, pp. 221-224.
(22) Frank Sargeson to John Lehmann, 23 March 1939, Letters, p. 21.
(23) Dan Davin to Frank Sargeson, 19 April 1949. Alexander Turnbull Library, MS-Papers-0432-155.
(24) Janet Wilson, 'Reconfiguring the National Canon: The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield', unpublished paper, 2013.
(25) Dan Davin, Introduction, Katherine Mansfield: Selected Stories (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. xiii.
(26) Robyn Hyde, cited in 'Katherine Mansfield (2)', Oxford Companion to New Zealand literature, ed. by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (Melbourne and Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 341.
(27) 'Conversation with Frank Sargeson: An Interview with Michael Beveridge', Conversation in a Train and Other Critical Writing ed. by Kevin Cunningham (Auckland: Auckland University Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 153.
(28) Janet Wilson, 'Reconfiguring the National Canon', p. 3.
(29) Frank Sargeson to E. H. McCormick, 9 February 1950, letters, p. 128.
(30) Frank Sargeson to E. H. McCormick, 9 February 1950, Tetters, p. 129.
(31) John Mulgan to Charles Brasch, 18 August 1940. Hocken Library, MS-0996-003/216.
(32) John Mulgan, 'A New Zealand Culture', Kiwi, (1932), 9-10.
(33) Man Alone, p. 141.
(34) John Mulgan, 'A New Zealand Culture', p. 9.
(35) 'First Novels', Athenaeum (9 July 1920), reprinted Katherine Mansfield, Novels and Novelists, ed. by John Middleton Murry' (London: Constable, 1930), p. 219.
(36) John Mulgan, 'A New Zealand Culture', p. 9.
(37) See E. M. Forster, 'Introductory', Aspects of the Novel, (London: Edward Arnold, 1927).
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|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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