The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Man Alone. Before he died at the end of the war he had time to express this new maturity of vision in only one novel, Man Alone, 1939. Like John Lee, like Robin Hyde, he is "groping for the scent of the people".
John Mulgan was born in 1911, went to Auckland University College, knew the student agitations, the ferment of ideas, the political pressures, the socialist theories of the 1930s. There followed further university experience at Oxford, an appointment to the Clarendon Press, journalism, editing, and routine literary jobs. (There is a little history of literature by Davin and Mulgan.) He enlisted in 1939, before the war began, and was awarded the M.C. in 1943 for his page 61 work with the Greek resistance movement. His student days at Auckland coincided with the depression, so that both the New Zealand scene of Man Alone and its wider outside political implications were those of John Mulgan's own experience.
Man Alone is old as well as new. It is old by reason of its social purpose which was the motive of Edith Grossmann and John Lee; like Chamier, John Mulgan has a thesis, "it is not good for a man to be alone". New is the method by which the theme is implicit in the story, almost is the story itself. Unlike Lee, John Mulgan makes no direct statement of his view. He handles the topic of what the world was like between the wars, the clashes of the thirties, and the bewilderment of men, in the antipodean setting familiar to him, without giving it any special colonial selfconsciousness.
Also new is Mulgan's central figure, Johnson. Refreshingly he is neither an intellectual frustrated, nor an adolescent in turmoil. As he is an Englishman, not one of us, he can see familiar things in a fresh light, and comment accordingly. Through his eyes a dour, unfriendly, unhappy "little country" is seen, in which easy good-fellowship erodes under the pressure of unfamiliar evils. This, by the end of the story, is not a land of Kiwi cobbers, but of men alone.
The title, drawn from Hemingway, is a sign of allegiance. Johnson is a Hemingway figure, inarticulate, sensitive, representative of his kind. But the North Island world he moves around in is not Hemingway's; it is native through and through. James Baxter has commented on the description of the Queen Street riot in Auckland, "that superb study in crowd psychology", and on the brilliance of the conversation with the old drunk in the railway truck. Scene after scene comes to mind as authentic. Look at the description of the land at the opening of chapter two, and the dialogue and comment which follow. Look at the narrative of the journey across the Desert Road country and the Kaimanawa Range.
Man Alone is a well made book, much more complex than it appears. Two elements dovetail, the sense of modern man's isolation and losing private battle with forces he cannot control, economic, military and political, and the picture of a social structure in collapse. As the bits fly apart and cohesion is gone, so man becomes the solitary, the outlaw, the hunted, the "hatter". It is a mark of Mulgan's talent that he should see in that typical New Zealand figure not only the image of Western man between the wars but an image of the human predicament. The book is thus lifted above mere reportage of our scene, and those things in it which are peculiarly our own become also symbolic of twentieth-century humanity. By the end of the novel, Johnson has turned into an almost mythical figure, the common man. "He was a good man. He took what was coming ... he was just sitting there . . . there are some men . . . you can't kill . . ."
There are several styles of writing in the novel. Much is told in the page 62 laconic New Zealand dialogue whose flavour John Mulgan gets just right. The Auckland riots are done in direct narrative. In the bush episode, the bare prose is allowed to rise in level, possibly sometimes becoming perilously near "fine writing". The flamboyance here, however, makes more emphatic the objective economy of the rest of the tale.*
Man Alone is the fullest prose rendering of what the New Zealand twenties and thirties felt like; in poetry, perhaps the best picture is to be found in the work of Denis Glover, R. A. K. Mason, and A. R. D. Fairburn. Allen Curnow in his introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse outlines the story well; readers will find his analysis of the climate of thought and feeling most profitable. R. A. K. Mason's Sonnet of Brotherhood, 1925, quoted as epigraph to this chapter, puts it all in a nutshell.