Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays
At first it is refreshing to read a local novel free of attitudes common in our writers—there is no sentimentality, no posing, neither puritanism nor revolt against it; only a hard mind playing without pity or accusation on our society. But the author's unwillingness to question the assumptions of his characters prevents the novel from rising above competent mediocrity. His assumptions are essentially those of Minhinnick, The Weekly News, L. K. Munro, The New Zealand Herald and Observer and the society notes of The New Zealand Mirror. Paganism and the social values of the stock and station agencies make a repulsive combination.
Julien Ware is the son of a rabbiter on an estate on the flanks of a range in eastern Nelson. The Torrens, the section on which he lives, has been abandoned to the rabbits, and the owner John Cecil lives fat on the green acres of the Sherbourne. Julien as a boy conceives a burning ambition to own the Torrens and make it fertile. That is the theme, Julien's ambition and how it is modified as he matures; the ambitious individual will battling with society.
It is a world from which most of us are excluded, a world of landowners, wool-cheques and mortgages, snobbery and marriage for money, Plunket balls and Hunt Club balls—colonial 'County'. Land is not fertility to the Cecils, it is profit, it is above all property, and the prestige and good living that go with it. To save the Sherbourne, Stella Cecil will sell her body, and her father will ask her to do it.
Julien dreams of the Torrens made fertile. But property lures him too. The boy without property or prospects determines to fight his way into the owner class using their methods, adopting their customs. Underlining the theme is the incredible story of Bracegirdle the coalminer who forced his way, in Edwardian England, into a brilliant wealthy law practice, to whom the slump brings the Sherbourne and other estates.page 34
But Mr Wilson is not even true to his assumptions. He connives at Julien's ruthlessness, but he has to invoke a series of timely windfalls for Julien to achieve his ends—his father sends him unexpectedly to Nelson College where he learns the manners of gentlemen, he wins a scholarship only because his rival withdraws out of friendship, Bracegirdle offers him a partnership, Bracegirdle dies and leaves him his immense property, including the Cecils' land. The author has avoided the powerful satirical possibilities of his theme.
By this time Julien is less single-minded. He has matured because 'infantry war, life's supreme teacher, the multiform Dr Arnold' has made a man of him. It was in Brave Company, this worship of war: only two things mattered, love and war, and the greater of these was war. The unsentimental Mr Wilson is getting close to the sentimentality of the R.S.A. reunion. There are soldiers who still hanker for the war years, though they cursed every minute of them. It is the only time when they lived in comradeship with a zest born of danger, when they were tough, cunning, death-daring animals. Now, pedalling in from the suburbs to hire out their minds and muscles, when can society offer them such fulness of living? Mr Wilson's voice has a familiar ring: Anzac Day, the R.S.A., Come on lad, it's your turn now. . . .
Except that Mr Wilson is too honest to deal in the humbug of Anzac Day speeches; he values honesty so much that he seems to imply that Julien is excused by his complete honesty with himself. Self-deception is unforgivable. 'We like to be judged harshly,' says John Cecil. 'We're not weak, we aren't filled with tender feminine understanding of others.' Mr Wilson is impatient of Amyas Craig, ex-M.P., mayor, president of the Chamber of Commerce, editor of the local paper, tireless warmer of boardroom chairs, because he believes the humbug he talks. But the Cecils are made secure by the Craigs: it is the Craigs who concoct the daily doses of soporific for the landless two millions who never get a look-in in this novel.
Julien's relations with women are handled fully and in more masculine fashion than by any New Zealander before Mr Wilson. There is his passion for Stella Cecil, his protective love for Beth Craig—one restless and destructive, the other too placid for him to believe in—eros and agape if you like, but more than that. For Stella he feels what he felt for her class—hatred, envy, coveting, so that when he marries her he wears her like a trophy, the spoilt arrogant little lady who used to turn up her nose from the back of her pony at the rabbit's blood on his pants. Love to him is a disgusting emotion. He kills their child without even knowing that she is going to have it. How could be love Beth, good though she is? Her father lives off investments and his newspaper, but the Craigs own no land, they excite no envy in him. Even at the end, though he has promised Beth she shall be his second wife, he recognizes that he prefers Stella.page 35
What then is Mr Wilson's conclusion? That a man's will, however fierce, will be diverted by bis mature sexual desires (warnings he calls them). That the will alters the world, and the world the will, to produce something different from what either intended. But it is not the end that interests Mr Wilson, only the effort. 'Whether one built or destroyed, it was only the striving that gave satisfaction.' Purpose doesn't matter, only activity. And Julien's dream of the Torrens never comes off; wells are bored, irrigation channels dug, and he dies in Italy. He has willed the land back to Stella, to the Cecils whom it never should have left. And although Stella will take the hint and make the Torrens green, she will never do it as he would have done it. Some future Julien Ware might attempt it. 'Let him plan from nothing also.' Only in the striving is the reward; but behind it all is a sneer, is Bracegirdle's slaty, cynical eye, tired after the effort of forcing himself up, knowing that at the heart of everything is nothing. His judgment on the human situation is 'tiny arrogant man, strutting under the rays of the sinking sun and imagining the long shadow he cast to be his stature'. All that courage, and a mortar can spatter it over Italian snows. Amyas Craig believed in his humbug, but (at heart) Mr Wilson doesn't believe in his. Is this the heart of it all?—of Minhinnick, the National Party platform, the Anzac Day speeches, the society notes of the Mirror?—self-contempt under a sinking sun, the self-contempt of an insecure feudal class rapidly becoming demoralised, the self-contempt that justifies war, emergency regulations, the ditching of all this Christian kid-glove stuff?
How much is the war responsible for Mr Wilson's stripped masculine style? There is nothing tender, sensuous or nervous in his style, none of the animation of each moment that we have learned to expect from Mr Sargeson and our short-story writers. The landscape might as easily be Australia or South Africa: in fact one English reviewer finished the book under the impression that it was Australian. The people are not distinctively New Zealand; there is no re-creation, even in the background, of a life recognisably New Zealand. Mr Wilson eyes experience as he describes his women, as John Cecil might appraise land or horseflesh. No irrelevant detail, only what is essential to the plot. It is an advantage in characterisation. As in Brave Company the characters are effortlessly distinct, if undeveloped; no bother about mannerisms, no studious descriptions, yet you can recognize them as soon as they speak. Julien's father and Stella are most successful, Beth doesn't quite come alive, Bracegirdle is unconvincing. For Julien Mr Wilson relies on repetition rather than development and he soon becomes a bore.
This novel has a beginning, a middle, an end; it is satisfyingly told; the theme is engrossing; some of it is deeply moving. It is worth the attention of everyone who follows novels by New Zealanders, because Mr Wilson can become increasingly important as a novelist. One is anxious page 36 to know if in his next novel he can widen his social range, ask himself more questions, humanise his outlook, and take time off to observe or share in the common life about him.