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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

O.E. Middleton's Stories

page 72

O.E. Middleton's Stories

This essay was first published in Mate 4, February 1960, as a review of O.E. Middleton's The Stone and Other Stories (The Pilgrim Press).

Mr Middleton has developed a great deal since his more modest and sketchy Short Stories of 1953. His aim in his new collection is still modest, but the five stories, one of which is quite long, are both deeper and more extensive in their range than the earlier stories.

The common subject of the five stories is awe in the face of unexpected, often tragic, experience. Billy is surprised at his own temerity in giving the Maori skeleton a decent burial and is not altogether clear why he does it; another boy is awed when Mr Larsen accidentally shoots his favourite pig-dog; Donald Skinner is overtaken by the events of his childhood and adolescence and runs away from their consequences; the corporal is impressed by the Prof's devotion to his brother and shocked by his suicide; Tony feels a religious reverence when he is involved in the common mysteries of fatherhood and bereavement. It is the mystery of living that concerns Mr Middleton and each of his protagonists comes out of his experience with a discovery, a freshly-learned lesson that owes nothing to what he has been told by others, and everything to his own attempt to digest the experience. Tony, after the birth and death of his first child, is not, and can never be, the same man that he was at the beginning of the story.

Mr Middleton's theme involves a limitation of range; it means that he has to confine his characters to states of mind that are, in no derogatory sense, naive: there are two boys, one adolescent, a corporal confronted with a philosophy of life he doesn't quite comprehend, and a young married man going through experiences for the first time in his life, finding his bearings without the help of a chart. The stories are told either in the first person, or in the third but seen through the mind of the main character. The advantage of this simplicity and subjectivity is that each experience, however familiar it may be in life and literature, comes through freshly, page 73 without preconceptions or sophistication. Mr Middleton writes with humility towards his subject matter, even to the experience of the discomfort of a long bus-ride after neglecting to relieve oneself, or the pride of a father in making his first cot. The stories are honest, free from pose or sentimentality. The story of Mr Larsen and his dog might have been sentimental if its real subject wasn't the effect of the experience on the boy who tells the story. The story of the married man might easily have become sentimental or melodramatic, touching as it does the most ordinary and the most meaningful experiences of life—love, parenthood, birth and death, and yet Mr Middleton walks sure-footed through it all, with a naivety and honesty that belong quite naturally to him.

Most of the stories are set in the country; even the married man, though he is a city worker and can discuss Dr Grantly Dick Read with his wife, is a simple, unsophisticated fellow. One finds it hard to imagine Mr Middleton writing of sophisticated urban life or of complicated people, yet his sureness of essentials might enable him to do so.

Of the five stories, the title-piece and 'A Married Man' are the most engrossing. In neither 'First Adventure' nor 'A Bit of Bad Luck' does the experience affect the reader as much as it affects the protagonist. Even in 'The Stone' I have one quibble: Miro's appearance in Auckland, on the arm of an American serviceman, so shortly after her departure from home because of illness is not satisfactorily explained — was the illness pregnancy? If it wasn't, did she return home before she went to Auckland? What did she tell her father? One can make guesses and fill the gap, but I feel that some hint of an explanation could have been offered. The most serious lapse is a more obvious one, in 'The Corporal's Story'. Mr Middleton no doubt understands the mentality of this intellectual soldier, loyal to his conscientious-objector brother and living apart from his fellow-soldiers. Yet one cannot accept (and one doubts if the author accepts) the Prof's objection to the padre taking the name of Jove in vain. In what way do the Prof's actions reflect any devotion to Zeus? Nor can one accept his plunge into the crater like Empedocles — the imitation is not only too consciously literary (and foreign to Mr Middleton's kind of writing), but its literary model, Arnold's Empedocles, is himself, in his fatal plunge, a little comic and unconvincing. There is one discrepancy: Arnold's Empedocles, so far as he believed in Zeus at all, was no admirer of his 'subtle, contriving head'. Yet this lapse of Mr Middleton's is so obvious that rather than irritating one, it puts one in a good mood; it does not destroy the authenticity of the rest of the story.

Mr Middleton's style is the flexible vernacular of the Frank Sargeson tradition, and a great deal of thought has gone into it. The language acts as a faithful medium of transmission of the experience and the mind of each protagonist. At no stage does it come between the reader and the experience. Neither is the background over-played. The stories belong to page 74 New Zealand, mainly the King Country and inland Taranaki, but the author's concern is with living in New Zealand, an indivisible experience to him, and the background is taken for granted.

Mr Middleton is engrossed in his subject, and his stories engross the reader rather than move him dramatically. Mr Middleton's special quality is his natural sympathy for ordinary, uncomplicated people, for common desires and simple experiences. His whole achievement is neither brilliant nor spectacular, but is satisfying, healthy and honest. It is over two years since these stories were finished and one looks forward to what, one presumes, has been written since.

The book is attractively produced by The Pilgrim Press and illustrated by Dennis Turner.