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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 24, No. 14. 1961.

Something Rotten In The Welfare State — Student Writers Probe The Ulcer

Something Rotten In The Welfare State

Student Writers Probe The Ulcer

Experiment, chief publication of the V.U.W. Literary Society, this year reaches its Eighth Number, ably if laconically edited by John Fowler. Eleven writers are represented in pros and verse contributions, and the free, sensitive line-drawings of Melvin Day add a welcome touch of distinction to the typescript format.

What have these writers got to say, and how do they say it?

They're a pretty disenchanted lot; nobody, it seems, much likes the sweet smell of success. There's a snail under every nasturtium leaf —man delights not, no, nor woman neither. If the quality of New Zealand living is here anatomized— sadly, angrily, or with a kind of bitter resignation—there can be little doubt about the general verdict: this patient is very sick indeed.

There are a few exceptions to the general gloom. Kirsty Northcote-Bade, who seems to be the sole woman contributor, has a fresh, clear, charmingly idiosyncratic poem about climbing the Sugar Loaf at Nelson (if charm is not, in this context, almost a dirty word). R. J. Smithies, too, is saved by the South Island: his Out on the tops, a vivid, sharply-perceived impression of a high-country deer-culler at work, makes most effective use of repetition and some other ballad devices:

Ah, the very black rocks and the very white

Snow and the very bright red of the blood in the snow.

This is a kind of poetic Heming-wayese, but I think it comes off with real eclat. Two authentic new poetic voices, then, one would like to hear again.

N. W. Bilborough also writes verse with accomplishment: his Seascape has a fine romantic resonance, his Ward 1 a correct compassion. Mountains and the sea console us; pity tempers revolt. Other poets in this number seem to me more tentative and fragmentary. Colin Bell is parenthetic and ungrammatical; Mark Young is cryptic, vigorous in his New Messiah fragment, perhaps most successful with his garbage-cans. Here—as with his own city-vignette, Crucifixion—Mel Stone's remarkable flair for combining illustration with pure graphic design enormously strengthens the poem. John Parkyn has a neat technique of compressed statement, but his themes come through it with rather a hollow boom. F. D. McAven's Pasticcio booms more metallically, like a loudspeaker, but he scores some direct hits; R. Amato's dead-pan non-poem so carefully avoids pity that it runs the risk of sterilizing itself.

Inevitably, comment as brief as this must be unfair to a range of work which, on the whole, is surprisingly objective, and quite remarkably free from mawkishness or undue introspection. We may be grateful to the Editor for a policy of rigorous verse selection, as for his refusal to seek the inclusion of more familiar poetic names.

And now, prose. There is said to be a revival of prose-writing in New Zealand these days; if so, one would expect any literary periodical to reflect it. Certainly, I think, the general character and flavour of this year's Experiment are firmly established by the prose contributions—all of which may fairly be described as creative or imaginative, and some of which nave genuine power.

The story which comes off best, in its own right, is The Sound of Summer, by James Lawrence. Two things are brilliantly caught—what it feels like to play jazz, what a New Zealand beach-town is like in high summer. The first, as far as I know, hasn't been done here before: the second has often been tried, but seldom done better. Throughout, the writing is crisp and admirably controlled, and the dialogue is masterly—a basic New Zealand idiom, overlaid with just enough American colloquial to suit this milieu. There's a girl, of course, and she nearly gets raped in that summer jungle which is Paraparam; but the final twist dexterously avoids melodrama. The gap of deprivation, that commonest of all New Zealand short story endings, is here coolly filled up with jazz. Old marking habits die hard: for me, this story is alpha plus, and criticism quite disarmed.

James Lawrence scores a clear bull, not just because he is a natural writer, but because his story creates its own ambience and rhythm. N. W. Bilbrough, more self-conscious and literary, explores less precisely a more familiar contrast—the bookish intellectual, and the Philistine type from the Chamber of Commerce. I enjoyed reading this: but I think the author would agree that his values remain in solution, and don't precipitate—except, perhaps, at the very last moment, when the Enemy rescues a shred of his human dignity.

Finally, two writers whose technique is, I feel, uncertain, but genuinely experimental; and whose material is of the first interest. In both cases they are able to draw on a wider range of experience than the average New Zealand student. And both attempt to relate that wider experience to life in these islands.

Renato Amato has a couple of extracts from a novel about a young boy in the last confused years of war in Italy. This is bare, stripped writing, almost unrelieved verismo: it makes its own harsh effect, but extracts from a longer work are always unsatisfactory. In The New New, a sensitive and perhaps too subtle Italian immigrant collides with an aggressive and perhaps too unsubtle Pig-Islander: the central image—"a box in a box in a box"—has possibilities, but they're not fully worked out; the irony, the sensibility, are too one-sided. I don't think myself a short story can easily take both objective reporting and subjective reflection —especially with a subject as prickly as this one. Still, it's, a subject that should be written about seriously, and one is glad to see it brought clear of the thickets of gossip.

Amato has two more stories— these are straight New Zealand genre-pieces. Courting is a story-in-the-head, and for me it stayed there. The Many-Chequered Thing is a more ambitious exploration of New Zealand types and attitudes, bringing back (how distant now they sound) echoes of old lost causes in the passages of Spain, of rough justice with the marquis. I don't feel myself that even this comes off completely, but the presence of such material helps enormously to strengthen this number—if only because it helps to give it a setting in time, and in the play of ideas.

Finally, Albert Wendt, whose two long stories open and close Experiment 8. Here, the local setting is strengthened in terms of place and of temperament. We open with natural man, somewhere in the Pacific Islands (Samoa?); and close with the fate of natural man, crucified in unnatural urban society (Wellington, N.Z.). Mr Wendt is again a writer with a great deal to say, his material is bursting with life, but I don't think he's yet got it firmly under artistic control. Both his stories are striking and memorable, and I'm sorry I can't here give them the close discussion they deserve—for with all their occasional faults of emphasis and tone, they are written with real passion and they grope at a number of important truths.

I hope I've made it clear that, in my view, Experiment 8 is pretty good value for the money. And with these few inadequate comments to agree or disagree with, the discussion is over to you.

James Bertram.