Sport 28: Autumn 2002
Elizabeth Knox — Starling
A keynote address at the Stout Research Centre conference
Loaded Canons: Discourse and Power in Aotearoal New Zealand,
Victoria University of Wellington, 1 December 2001
I became conscious of the idea of great books at about the same time I learned to read; not, however, through my reading, or schooling, but because I was present when my father first began to try to form my older sister's tastes and habits. When she was about seven Mary was having difficulties at school. The school sought the help of an educational psychologist, who gave my sister IQ tests. It turned out that she was very bright. The school thought this was a satisfactory explanation for her social difficulties—of course it wasn't, but I'm not going to go into that. The school gave her free range of the library and, in a revolutionary step, let her make models with the boys, instead of sewing with the girls. Dad's reaction was to begin to try to broaden Mary's mind and horizons. She was taken to operas. She sat with him in our lounge appreciating music (though she was tone deaf). He began to tell her about the great books, and the great writers. You have to imagine this process of education, and acculturation, taking place, fitfully, over years. I sat in the background and listened. I noticed that Dad's great books were in his shelves, but weren't the books he was reading. I wanted to read the books he was reading—particularly after trying Don Quixote when I was eight. I wanted to know what Mum had enjoyed (she scarcely ever read when we were young). Mum talked about making her sisters keep the light on while she finished Anne Of Green Gables. She swooped on the shelves of my Uncle Keith's bach to hand me books by Maurice Walsh and Raphael Sabatini. (When I was in my teens I used to buy these myself on the musty mezzanine floor of a bookshop in town. They are long out of print, but can still be encountered in a canonical form—because there are many canons, page 118 and canons within canons—in John Ford's The Quiet Man, with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, and Michael Curtiz's Captain Blood with Errol Flynn.)
Mary resisted Dad's efforts to educate her; she had her own enthusiasms. (It's my younger sister Sara who is slowly transferring his vinyl to CD, and can sing bits of the Saint Matthew Passion.) I began to read his books—though not those he was particularly insistent about.
When I was eleven I had my first important—life altering—encounters with canonical works. Trying to interpret page after page of Don Quixote didn't count, even though some of it sank in, as a nightmare of sun and colourful monsters. No—there were two things that happened to me, that made me first begin to imagine that I might want to be a writer, one of Dad's exalted beings. The first thing was one of Dad's other books, The Silver Locusts, an early edition of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. The other was a trip for the seniors at Paremata School. We were bused to Cannon's Creek school hall, where there was a screening of Olivier's Henry V. There were four classes of kids in the hall, two from Paremata and two from Cannon's Creek. We were happy to be at the movies, and the screening began well. But after about five minutes kids became restive, and then gradually worked up through restiveness, to noise, to crawling under seats, running in the aisle and general riot. But there were a few who sat still and stared at the screen. I was one of them. If you recall that film—and I haven't seen it since I was eleven—it opens in the Globe Theatre, with the audience sometimes haranguing the actors, then moves out of the theatre into studio rooms, then at one point there's a shot of a long column of soldiers marching off into the vanishing point of a painted backdrop. By the time they're at Agincourt the actors are in the open air. Then the film slowly closes down into artifice again, and ends in the Globe. That's what I remember. I remember because it struck me at the time with terrific force. And so did the language—of which what I was able to take in was the heroic self-assertion of its characters, and I mean the little people too; they opened their mouths and appeared. I remember that I went home and responded to the feelings I had about the film by painting, over months, a whole series of pictures page 119 of battles. Dad bought me a box of oil paints and suggested that I might like to be an artist.
Three years later I began to write poetry, as teenagers often do. Then one day, when I was sixteen, my father wandered in on a discussion between me and my sisters and my friend Carol about a treaty between two countries in our imaginary world, the world of a game we invented and had been playing, then, for five years. Dad listened for a time to our thoughts on the consequences of the treaty—it was a secret treaty—and then said, ‘I hope you're writing this down.’ We'd never thought to do that. I had a little notebook in which I kept census figures, names, ages, family affiliations of characters, but that's all. We remembered its history. It was an oral history. But writing things down was a novel idea. We all tried it—and I liked it. And a short while later I announced to my family that I was going to become a writer, a novelist. And Dad, who'd started me, who had said, ‘I hope you're writing this down’, whose books I'd read, who always talked as if being a writer was the best, most commendable possible aspiration, spent the next several years trying to discourage me. Who did I think I was? There wasn't any point in being a writer unless one could be a great writer. There were no great women writers (and when I went in search of the people not represented in his bookshelves, turned up some great women writers and volunteered Virginia Woolf, Dad said: ‘She may have been a great writer, but she was a bad wife’).
That's the head of my talk; its body is a selection of excerpts from my journals (and one from my sister Mary's diary).
Dated between 1976—about three months after I first began to write prose, of my own, not school essays—and 1986—several months before I finished writing After Z-Hour and Bill Manhire gave it to Victoria University Press—these excerpts show what thoughts I had, or conversations I recorded, around the subject of canons. Thoughts about wanting to join a literature; about what kind of literature was there to be joined; what other people thought about it, or said they thought; about what one should write, and what one wants to write.
What a reaction! In History, Greenlees was saying that in the churches after the French Revolution there were no longer any statues because of the idolbreakers, the iconoclasts. I found that I had my hands over my ears. I can't stand that word ‘iconoclast’. That's what Dad says he is when he tells you what you shouldn't like, or be interested in. Like Lord of the Rings. It can't be good because everyone likes it. He's still trying to give Mary things to read. He gave her the words of some opera he was playing last night, or songs, Mahler anyway. He said, ‘Here—you're interested in German’, and she said, scornful, that it was Sara who was studying German.
Mr Dean in Art History—when we were looking at Chagall. He wanted us to talk about it. No one was saying anything. I like Chagall. One of the paintings was of a calf inside a white cow—it always gives me a lump in my throat. Mr Dean got mad at us and started to go on about our lack of understanding of fantasy: ‘The only common denominator between child and man.’ I was offended. So I stopped writing down what he was saying and put my pen down. And he said, ‘Have I offended you?’ And I said, ‘No, I was listening.’ I was listening, so it wasn't a lie. I was thinking that I could tell him about fantasy. Why do they do that? They go to give you something, an art work or an opera or Marcel Proust, and the moment you don't put out your hand they hit you with it.
Mary's diary, May 1976
It was mid-afternoon. We were all out in the workroom (we crowd together in one room even when we're not talking to each other but doing different things). Sara was playing a David Bowie record which made communication for me and Elizabeth rather difficult. Sara and I were seated on the bed. Elizabeth, with all her drafts of poems around her, was sitting in the sun on the brick hearth. She was trying to read me poems over David Bowie. ‘I've decided,’ said Elizabeth, ‘to try to publish some of my poems in the Listener.’page 121
‘Don't do that,’ I said, ‘Your poems are better than that. They publish very mediocre poems.’
‘I know,’ said Elizabeth, ‘That's why they might publish mine—after all I'm not known. Anyway some of the poems they publish are quite good.’
‘But your poems would frighten them. Don't try to publish any of the ones about your feelings.
‘They have a bias too,’ I said, suddenly realising something. ‘To New Zealandy poems. I mean, the Listener is nationalistic—they like things with a New Zealand feeling.’
‘I know,’ said Elizabeth.
‘Well, send in descriptive ones, any poems that are written about Tata Beach. Don't send any personal poems, or any of those Game poems.’
Elizabeth then read me a few to see what I'd like her to send in. I felt pleased with her. But suddenly she said, ‘I'm going to send them in under the name of S.F. Kelly.’
‘Why?’ I said, distressed that she wanted to be anonymous, and confused by it.
‘Privacy,’ said Elizabeth.
‘But what's the use of publishing a poem if no one knows you wrote it?’
‘I'm not important, maybe only the poem is important,’ Elizabeth said. She pointed to herself, ‘I'm only important to myself.’
‘And your family. But what if your poems became well-known and still no one knew who you were? And every time someone writes something anyway stupid critics come up with suggestions like they were really five people or he was a woman or she was a man—why confuse the issue further with a false name?’
‘Don't be silly, Mary. I haven't published anything yet. I probably won't get published. I want to see what happens.’
Sara said, ‘Don't be silly, Mary. Lots of writers use pen names. Why can't you understand?’
‘I'm only a girl, and 17, and I've got a family, and I go to page 122 school,’ said Elizabeth. ‘And my feelings are in all the poems.’
‘What's wrong with being 17, and a girl?’ I said. ‘For our International Woman's Year at least—give yourself a female name.’ I was thinking to myself that a name like S.F. Kelly conjured up a mad Irish man—and not wanting New Zealanders to picture S.F. Kelly as a mad Irish man. ‘If you don't use your real name and do write as this S.F. Kelly no one will know that its my sister!’
‘That sounds like vanity to me,’ said Elizabeth.
It was partly just a wish to have a part in people's reactions to her and her writing. She doesn't have much to do with anyone any more apart from us and Mum and Carol, and because everything she does plays such a great part in my life sometimes I feel she is forcing me into the same mental isolation, because there is part of my life I can't talk about with my friends. Then it occurred to me that she'd have to write to the Listener anonymously anyway so that Ian Cross wouldn't connect her with her father. And that Daddy doesn't like the Listener any more. I asked her was it because of Daddy.
‘That's one reason,’ said Elizabeth.
‘But,’ I said, ‘If Daddy were out of the way, I'd expect you to put your name on them.’ I knew that wouldn't make any difference to her. I looked at her—sitting on the hearth and beginning to look upset. ‘Cheer up,’ I said, ‘I'm not annoyed with you any more.’
(I can't remember if I did send any poems. They were terrible poems. Very grand. When I left school I went to work for the IRD in Porirua. I was saving up to take some time off work and write a novel. In my lunch hours I used to go and sit in the Porirua library and write—bad poetry, and stories about our imaginary world.)
April 1977 (Afternote, From This Place, a Game book)
There is nothing very good in this book. The writing is a little static. I'm not putting enough care into the stories. I wrote most of these hurriedly in lunch hours, or for an hour or two after page 123 work (my weekends are taken up by the Game, which profits the writing in its way). Some of the stories are even written without the slightest inspiration, when I've sat myself down with my pen and book and have told myself that I have to get going because I'm behind schedule—as if there's a schedule—and if I go on too slowly and with too much to learn my whole life will go by without my having dropped my mulch on the garden of history. That's how it is—I'm learning how to write, and pretending to be a writer, and each story here hates itself for not showing how much I love its characters and their world.
(In 1978 and early 79 I took about eight months off work and lived at home on my savings while writing a novel. I had less time than I'd budgeted for because, in an effort to discourage me from giving up a perfectly good job in order to do something so risky and obscenely self-confident, my parents doubled my board.
I made a false start, and wrote about 30,000 words of a New Zealand book, set in Golden Bay. Then I wrote One Too Many Lives, which is about four girls with an imaginary game, and what happens when one girl gets a boyfriend and decides to grow up and devote herself to him. The main protagonist is Fiona. Vivian is the girl with the boyfriend. C.J. is an imaginary character, whose death lets Vivian out of the game, and her characters' obligations as his wife and several of his daughters. One Too Many Lives is a novel in which only the real people have false names. (Twenty years later, C.J. would appear under the false name of Ulaw in Black Oxen.)
So—I spent my year at home, 1979, wrote my book, and gave it to Dad to edit. He liked in very much. He sent it off to David Elworthy at Collins, who could only accept one novel that year—a bad year for NZ publishing, 1979, the year Plumb appeared in paperback, and revived things somewhat. The novel David Elworthy published was Philip Temple's Beak of the Moon. A very astute decision. David Elworthy also liked One Too Many Lives, and he sent it around various publishers in England. People there, and here, were impressed, but had reservations.)
What amazes me about my life in relation to The Game after I wrote One Too Many Lives was that it changed very little. Dad sees One Too Many Lives as a novel and disregards what it tells him about his children. Mum and he still wonder what we do in the blank hours of our weekends—The Game, its existence confided, explained, and presented in One Too Many Lives—still eludes them.
Next Wednesday it will be three years since we killed C.J. One Too Many Lives should have continued after the death bed. Sunday, Fiona begins to write the story of his death, working from a tape they made of the event. Monday she goes to work and into delayed shock. Monday night she dreams she lays her head in C.J.'s lap and he forgives her. On March the first it is Vivien's birthday. Vivian is happy, fatuous and unmarked. Months pass, the girls stop speaking. Fiona keeps trying to save time, take everything in before it disappears. She gets a pair of glasses. The game continues for two of the girls in a narrow and intense fashion. The travellers, the exiles, are in an unfamiliar city. The girls are inventing the streets as they are walked. I keep writing these notes—the only thing I'm writing now—because I'm moved by how everything has changed but how little my feelings have. I still feel that no one has written the story. I have, and I haven't yet.
(Tim Armstrong in the next bit was a friend of my cousin Vicky. He went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. I hadn't been to University in 1981. I was a temping computer operator at this point, saving up to take time off and write another novel. We, Sara and I, were living in a flat in Reuben Avenue, Brooklyn.)
Yeats's description of automatic writing in his introduction to The Tower and The Winding Stair. I don't like this feeling— page 125 disagreeing with a book and trying to ‘defeat’ it in my imagination. This ‘trying to defeat a book’ is something I criticised in Tim Armstrong when I argued with him. I don't see how anyone who hopes to be a writer knowingly sets out to overwhelm, in their mind, the influence of what they read. Tim said he set out to defeat every book he read. Perhaps he should be a philosopher then and undo ‘reality’ as represented by a series of sentences. I think Tim takes more against the language in most writing (especially modern literature. Especially New Zealand literature, of which he says my One Too Many Lives is representative, because it's‘depressing’. Which is to say that no good comes of the passions of its characters. Yes—it is a New Zealand book, but its characters’ passions are otherworldly, not foreign, but otherworldly. They are defeated by limited possibility, which is New Zealand, but they're defeated not by what they can't do, but the nonsensical invisibility of what they care most about—their imaginary Game).
Tim describes himself as looking for a perfect expression in the English language. I annoyed him by saying, ‘What, like “Blow me down!” or “Fiddle dee dee!”’ He is not, he says, looking for a new poetic language, but perfect prose, perfectly logical and transparent.
Dad used to say that he was unable to write because he was a perfectionist. And, sure, he wrote over and over certain meaningful scenes in his novel about the ecstatic and the nihilist—a few of which he showed to me, others of which I read when I looked through his papers to discover whether he was the ‘writer’ he said I'd never be.
So, I distrust ‘perfectionism’ because it seems like an excuse not to write, because with Dad it was one of his excuses (the other was that he wasn't selfish enough, ‘unkind’ like I'm ‘unkind’, ‘egotistical’ like I'm ‘egotistical’—he never understood that in writing sometimes evenhandedness and objectivity are a terrible perversion of feeling). I wonder about Tim—I wonder if I should listen to him. Of course I would wonder since he didn't like One Too Many Lives. I wonder if he has too many scruples page 126 to be a writer which, after all, for a start, only means starting somewhere, even in the wrong place. It isn't heroic, or a quest, like a search for a perfect expression in English prose, and it isn't selfish or unkind, or even very strenuous. No one needs to be sanctified to begin, or forgiven afterwards. This is only a note, but see, I'm doing it!
I was reading One Too Many Lives over today after getting it back from Chris Cole-Catley. It's too good to go on the scrap-heap and I love it more than Novel #2.
I slept through the alarm this morning. I dreamed that I was my hero walking into a huge room, under a domed roof, and on to a mosaic map of the world. And, since I was too depressed to work on Novel #2 today I wrote letter from Olympia and K'Methoa to Winellen, retreating into my rejected, beloved world. I feel like I'm pulling faces behind someone's back. I want to go and join the grand gathering of people who get published in Landfall and the Listener, but I can't keep a straight face, my tongue is too bitter, and I keep putting it out.
I am at my typewriter again today, and writing the scene before the lunch-hour shopping/she runs into K scene. I don't quite know why I'm writing this, the story I think I have to tell. (But I do know why am writing this note. I'm writing to the old lady, who might feel tender about her young self.) I keep thinking about Pauatahanui's bare hills and Paremata's blue harbour; the roots of fallen trees in the town belt after the Wahine storm, and my memories of Dad's stories of his Pamir—his snapshot from Wellington's west coast, of a long grey battleship and tall sailing ship side by side. And I'm thinking of the weird lights from the squid boats behind Farewell Spit. I don't know much, but with these few things I could outline the bounty of my world. I think I could. Am I saving them up? Or saving myself for them? Or is it that I saw them like someone who sees something about page 127 which they have to take the witness stand and testify. Really I was going about my other business—looking at Avergild, not Paremata, Cryheron not Tata Beach. Or as well as. My dilemma is my story. My real story. It keeps coming back in this journal, more like malaria than a recurring theme. But Chris Cole-Catley said of One Too Many Lives that the fantastic world was just too fantastic for her. But it was a true story. So now I am writing Novel #2 and it is a real true story, but, you know—‘Your Honour, could I be excused …?’
(I'd begun my second novel, Novel #2, a realist fiction, about a young woman in love, about working in offices and wanting to do something better, and about the Springbok Tour.)
Conversation at the Poananga-Robertson wedding with Jeff Kennedy. Jeff owns Toad Hall. He was advising me on what I should write. He read One Too Many Lives because he was thinking of ‘getting into’ publishing. He was all full of how I should get out of the little world in my head. It isn't enough to want to write like Janet Frame. Janet Frame is depressing. (I don't think she is. Do I have a high threshold for the grim?) Jeff said that with my command of language and flare for narrative I should write for film or television. I told him all in good time. I said I wanted to tackle the hard, serious subjects first. Jeff said that that the first duty of Art is entertainment. That's very different from Dad's ‘Art is inner order’.
One Too Many Lives was an uncertain venture for me. I had no idea what would happen to it when I wrote it, but it had to be written. Still, I wrote it under its own level. I can't tell now if I only think that because I've grown up in these last two years. Now that I've experienced some of the difficulties of getting fiction published here Salamander seems not an uncertain venture, but destined to failure from the start. I might as well page 128 say it's doomed.
I must get to work nevertheless. I keep feeling as if I'm being punished for being proud.
(I hardheadedly finished my second novel, Salamander, hating it the whole time I was writing it. I gave it to my father to read. He said that it was a more mature work than One Too Many Lives, but needed cleaning up. I felt relieved, but when we sat down with it I told him I didn't like it. He said that, although it was a more polished effort, he thought One Too Many Lives was a better novel. He asked me what I wanted to do with it? Did I want to put it away for a while. I said I'd rather put it away forever, and did. It was after I had consigned Salamander to Dad's filing cabinet that I went to university.)
Professor Robinson is quelling, or worried about me because of my enthusiasm in tutorials for Jane Eyre. Maybe every year he has to revive female students into their ‘studentness’. But my ‘studentness’ isn't who I am in relation to my reading. Must I learn to be clever, and never eager?
Saturday at the museum shop. The door is flapping. I'm reading Angel at My Table in instalments at the counter. Customers are clustered in the foyer by the revolving door like sheep at a draughting gate. Don't come into the shop—on Saturdays I read.
Frank Sargeson's kindness—capital kindness—and advice to Janet Frame. Reread the Classics. (Should I mind having a mind like a junkyard?) He comes tapping on her door, and announces lunch. When I was at home at Paremata writing One Too Many Lives at lunchtime I'd get up dreamily and make lunch for Dad. Then I'd wash the dishes. I remember staring at my own hands against the stainless steel, through the bubbles and the steam, Chapter Seventeen cooling and hardening in my head. It felt like a blessing, as if the world was there with me, as if the future was. I know better now and I'm still doing it. I think of Fourth page 129 Form science lessons—kinetic and potential energy. One moment I'm with my soldiers in a tropical downpour on the deck of the troop ship—the rain rebounding to wet our legs up to our knees. Next I've finished the scene and it's still, but it can be read, coaxed into motion again by the pressure of attention on the pull-cord of a line. (Novel #3 is a lawnmower! With a pull-start, and two-stroke motor!)
Jeannette says that she's striving to express power, competence etc … in her women characters and that she is convinced of the weakness of her male characters. This is all very well and good, but she's made it a matter of conscience. I don't want to write with my conscience. If I find myself thinking of what I should do I remember things I've admired—but then the things I admire, I can't see the ‘should’ in them. I can't see Blake at the service of his ideas, only weathering them—wind, invisible presences.
But this isn't quite true. Jeannette is inventing characters, but not making a book of them. I want to be a good, or even a great writer. I have to hide my ambition—it's too much for me—for me—admiring greatness in other writers, dead and living, to want to be great myself. I've had to try to hide what I want, what sometimes I think I can get, even from Mary and Sara, who've known me all my life, and have watched me steadily moving towards what I wanted, getting gradually fitter all the time.
Jeannette says she doesn't believe in talent. And she doesn't like my talented characters. Like Kelfie in Novel #3, who imposes himself, denounces things, tries to influence people, and who is punished for being wilful and self-insistent (even though he's male and should get away with it!). I feel obliged to punish him—not because he's male, but because that's my experience. I should ask Jeannette what the difference is between talent and competence—the competence she's endowed her women with. Does competence have utility, and talent none? page 130 Does not believing in talent make Jeannette more useful to people wanting to do things than I am? She says, since I'm writing, and I'm ambitious about it, I should try to describe society. I tell her that I don't want to paint a picture of the prison—or, the only detail I want in my picture is the gap in the bars I'd like to go through.
Jeannette says that she thinks that university perpetuates the system. That it's not for her, loftily, as though anyone (me) who does well and somehow benefits from their degree is somehow more a product of, or has more stake in, the system. Of course I'm doing a BA in English literature—which apparently won't get me a job. ‘But look at the syllabus,’ she says. ‘The syllabus is the system.’ She's talking about the money/work system and I think she should make a distinction between economic organisations and a thing—the syllabus—that is, in itself, only a set of distinctions. I study English literature and I let someone choose these books for me. I can read other books myself. I get my degree. My degree is another distinction, for employers perhaps, but Jeannette knows I'm planning not to use it, I'm planning to be a writer, which I think puts me in the work, but not the money, bit of the system.
When I said that, as a writer, I got something out of my English literature degree, and thought other would-be-writers might too, Jeannette said, ‘Well, I want to write but I don't think studying English at university can help me do that.’
I wrote my two novels pre-university, pre-my formal study of literature—one good, one bad. I've nearly finished the one I started in Bill's course. I've tried it both ways. To give Jeannette credit she did say she thought it was my enthusiasm that allowed me to enjoy my degree. I said, yes, I even enjoyed, or at least was glad to have experienced, the alienation and disillusionment of—for instance—not enough woman writers in the syllabus. Jeannette thinks I'm being bizarre. She says, ‘So what are you going to do about that?’ But it was useful, and moving, to find page 131 out that university wasn't, in the end, my place—that it could have been, and wasn't. And since I'm not going on with it, I can't change what gets taught. All I can do is pick up a straw in my beak, fly up under the eaves, and put it in place, then go back for another, and another, until my nest is ready. All I can do, is patiently work my way into the house.