The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
David Ballantyne. By the accident of alphabetical order, the first signature to that letter was David Ballantyne's. He might well have signed first on logical grounds also, for his novel The Cunninghams, 1948, is, in its ironical, compassionate, unheroic picture of suburbia, clearly akin to Sargeson's work. So is its marked success with the artistic rendering of New Zealand idiom.
After various jobs, a year in the army, and another as reporter on the Auckland Star, Ballantyne left for England in 1954. There he has been successsful in journalism and in serious television drama. His novel The Cunninghams was published first in New York, where it was acclaimed, in spite of the critics' bewilderment at its New Zealandisms. Owing to dollar shortage, the novel has never been easy to find here, and is not as well known as it deserves to be.
It offers us a small-town family, and because it apparently keeps to a transcript of fact, readers tend to bypass the literary question and, as they do for John Lee, Jean Devanny, John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, to ask instead, "Is New Zealand life really like this?" Usually they then answer themselves, "No". But anyone who reads Truth, or does social work, will admit that the edges of our society are ragged. If you object, "Yes, but why choose to write of such people", I would say that an analysis of a way of life is often most significant if made at the point where that life is disintegrating—that is, at the not-so-presentable fringe.
Let us then consider the literary question, is this a good novel? It presents Gil, Helen, and Gilbert, "man, woman and child", and out of the failure, futility and uncertain explorations of their lives, builds up a commentary on lower middle-class life, on our utilitarian values, on the inadequacy of our social philosophy, on the sterility of our spiritual satisfactions. Gil, the returned soldier—the year is 1936— has been defeated by his ruined health and his lack of inner strength. Helen believes that we all have a right to be happy. When she gets her bit of fun, it is a half-and-half affair which offers neither her nor her lovers what they thought they would get. She has no depth for remorse, only a mild regret at not measuring up to her private view page 74 of herself as wife and mother. No one in the book has any stronger compulsions than the outward discipline of social opinion. The son Gilbert is another version of the adolescent, caught by school, and society, and sex.
These three threads plait into a tale. There are no crises. There are no colours, certainly not rose or pink. It is a book without hope. Tragedy, or even pathos, requires an imaginative lift, which you find for instance in Man Alone. This book is the poorer for being so deliberately flat in tone. There is not even anger in it, merely a grey pity. It is a version of T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men, with the poetry taken out. Nevertheless, The Cunninghams is a book significant in our literature, it is adult, technically competent, and unusual enough to have made a name overseas on its own merits. (See also chapter eight.)