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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

Frank Sargeson's Stories

Frank Sargeson's Stories

This essay was first published as an Introduction to Frank Sargeson's Collected Stories 1935-1963 (Blackwood and Janet Paul 1964).

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Frank Sargeson's stories have been so long out of print that it has been difficult for younger readers to know at first hand the work of a writer early accepted as 'a pioneer and vital power'1 in New Zealand writing, who was for a generation of writers of fiction something of what Gogol was to the nineteenth century Russian novelists. The sixteen signatures to a letter to Mr Sargeson on his fiftieth birthday (in which they acknowledge their debt to him)2 are in fact a roll-call of New Zealand writers of fiction of the time: the only name missing is that of Mr Sargeson's senior in age and date of first publication, John A. Lee. And it can be said that even for those writers who have begun to publish since that date, their job has been made easier and their success more possible by Mr Sargeson's going before them.

It was in 1935 that, sorting a little incongrously with some of the confident leftist assertions of Tomorrow, Mr Sargeson's modest and deceptively inconsequential first sketches appeared with any frequency. By the end of 1939, that fortnightly had published about thirty sketches. There were two slim collections—a paperback of twenty-nine pages in 1936 and a hardback of little more than a hundred pages in 1940. The fuller collection of That Summer and Other Stories in 1946 ran to less than two hundred pages, and included many of the stories of the earlier collections. Leaving aside the three novels and the plays that have been written since, Mr Sargeson's oeuvre is small. Yet by his fiftieth birthday it had facilitated the publication of the books of Roderick Finlayson, Dan Davin, David Ballantyne, A. P. Gaskell, John Reece Cole and Janet Frame. In what lay the fertilising effect?

Before Mr Sargeson, those writers born into the imaginative desert of pre-depression New Zealand and unable to afford the release of expatriation, available to Katherine Mansfield and to Jane Mander, had been able to accommodate themselves to their situation only by finding expression page 129 in free-lance or spare-time journalism, book reviews and the uncertain recognition of an occasional magazine story, and, if they were lucky enough, in books published in London. A newer generation of writers, driven by the depression to question the rigid but hollow orthodoxies of their society, was conscious of an outlook distinct from that of London, and was no longer content to see it either as their spiritual Hawaiki or as their spiritual Mecca. But if they were to write for a native readership, they were concerned to adopt a stance more dignified than that of, say, some of the contributors to the New Zealand Artists' Annual (1926-32)— alternately pretentious and apologetic, always self-conscious. They were concerned to do as the poets had done a few years earlier, establish a meaningful connection between their experience in the society they lived in and that of their compatriots who might read them. In Frank Sargeson they found a writer who, without map or other guide than the technical example of the American Sherwood Anderson and the inspiration of the Australian Henry Lawson, had cleared some tracks they might confidently follow. It was important to them—perhaps, it might seem now, unnecessarily so—that his stories had been accepted by the English New Writing and the American New Directions. But, more important, he had shown that imaginative truth could be reached by being true to his country. 'You proved,' the sixteen writers said in 1953, 'that a New Zealander could publish work true to his country and of a high degree of artistry, and that exile in the cultural centres of the old world was not essential to this end. One could be provincial, in the best sense, and of the world at the same time.' What Mr Sargeson had achieved was a sense of identity and of audience: he could speak directly without the mediation of London; he could write—as say Frank Anthony (in his novel) and John A. Lee had not been able—without that occasional self-consciousness and nervous tie-straightening that came of having to explain oneself to an English market; without the attitudinising that Robin Hyde picked up from her twelve years of journalism.

It needs little imagination to reconstruct the uniform crudity of popular sensibility which ran through all classes of pakeha New Zealanders from the beginning of the century to the thirties, a spiritual insensitivity disturbed not at all by the first world war but only by the depression; a crudity incarnated in the solid unimaginative flesh of Bill Massey, Prime Minister from 1912 to 1925, and continued in the solemn bumbling figure of George Forbes, Prime Minister from 1931 to 1935. It was the ethos of the hard-working small farmer impatient of all behaviour that did not self-evidently contribute to material gain or public decorum. Visitors like George Bell, an American consul, commented on the complacency, Andre Siegfried on the distrust of the intellect, Sidney Webb on the vulgarity. In 1929, J. B. Condliffe could note that 'the middle-class conception of cultural education for children rarely goes beyond lessons on the pianoforte'. It was a cultural climate in which reading was a waste of time, page 130 imagination an impractical self-indulgence, morality a programme of self-denial and the masking of personal passions except, perhaps, those of righteous envy and anger. Blanche Baughan celebrated its virtues, even wishfully supplying what she herself missed most, an appreciation of the arts. But though the head of her Active Family playing Schubert at the end of a long week's work may well have been true, he was hardly typical; and one suspects that it was the social code of the Active Family, bent on breaking in that farm with no better object than to sell it at improved value and break in another, that eventually dried up the considerable talent that created its lasting image. It was a social code that had driven Katherine Mansfield back to London; Alice Webb attempted no more than to question the complacencies of its surface; Jane Mander and Jean Devanny made their feminist protests against it; Robin Hyde felt its essential injustice. Even though the code owed a lot to the temperance feminists of the nineties who had reduced the men to half the vote and shut them out of the bars at six o'clock, it was a crude and unfeeling ethos, and it was women writers rather than men who were moved to challenge it.

Yet if the political victory of the urban worker in 1935 gave the first decisive blow to the small-farmer outlook, some of its attitudes continued. The new hopes that the Labour victory opened for the worker reflected themselves mainly in increased spending: his outlook remained little less conformist; if originality and non-conformity amused rather than angered him, he was no less distrustful of them. Frank Sargeson noticed the new combination of increased consumption and old uncouthness. 'That's the point about these days,' he wrote in 1937. 'They're a combination of frightful crudity and even more frightful refinement. But luckily both are somewhat spurious.'3 At least the threat to the spirit was less. But a political change had not brought a moral change.

What Mr Sargeson sought to do was to comment on New Zealand society in the light of his more humane, more tolerant and compassionate vision of man as a loving, suffering animal who often mutilates himself and others in propitiation of false gods. He did so not by frontal attack or by broad comprehensive survey, but by close and sympathetic spotlighting of parts of the under-surface of society. He sought to expose and isolate the dead tissue in the minds of those who like Uncle 'can't suppose', to pause where there were unnoticed growing-points in the unvoiced thoughts or intuitions of social underdogs and outcasts, to show them as they respond to warmth and light or come to nothing in a frosty atmosphere.

In a story that Mr Sargeson did not wish to include in this selection, Harry discovers the secret of the permanence of his landlady's squally marriage when she tells him that her husband 'loves beautiful'. Harry goes on:

Everything you did you ought to do beautiful. If you did that, Harry said, you'd always have a sort of core inside you that nobody would be page 131 able to touch. It wouldn't matter what you had to go through, whether you had to go on relief or anything, nothing would be able to touch you. If you loved beautiful and hated beautiful and did everything beautiful, then you'd live beautiful. Right inside, in that core inside you, you would.4

It is this core of beauty in his characters that Mr Sargeson is interested in, a core so vulnerable to attacks of the worm. The work of the borer, however, is only too visible and it is any form of rigid principle imposed on and inhibiting the vitality of the lonely human soul, capable, if not interfered with, of making its own satisfying relationships with others. Ultimately he saw that life-denying principle as deriving from the Protestant ethic of Success and the doctrine that Time is Money, a doctrine that he feared would corrupt before birth such an earthly paradise as Michael Joseph Savage might hope to set up.5 Repeatedly, his stories involve a conflict between the beauty of the human spirit and some doctrine or dogma that inhibits it and contorts its expression.

Father Doyle's kindliness is preferable to granpa Munro's scrupulous bigotry. Miss Briggs and Frances, in the midst of life, are made mean by their own narrowness; they and Uncle in his hard knocker are both victims and enforcers of a life-denying code. More harmful, because it is more generous in its provision for the claims of the flesh, is the sober philosophy of the Scot who finds his calling as an undertaker, since it drives his protege to a devotion to duty that kills his baby and kills his marriage. In the Department, humanity or what is left of it survives only in the basement, in the failures, Mr Birtleberry and the pathetic Mr Flyger in love with a girl too young for him. Jones has enough charity to feel guilty at walking past a man in need of help and he knows that in doing the right thing he has done the wrong thing. Mrs Bowman's greed reasserts itself over her grief and she drives Sally back to the explosives factory that nearly killed her. The inhumanity of an economy that operates like a machine forces a workless old man to begging to warm his hands in a bucket of soapy water. The pressures of a production system whose rewards reflect the fluctuations of supply and demand, drive the Man of Good Will, with his appreciation of labour and growth, his feeling for his crops and the soil, to stage a futile strike, and they reduce him to a paralysis both literal and symbolic. It is in a seizure of righteousness that the Good Boy kills his girl-friends. It is in disgust with his own randiness that Victor burns the torn cat. Myrtle's guardians, with their sense of the fitness of things, can see only dirt in the adolescent love of their ward and old Bandy. If cunning beats strength in the Rangitoto Channel, it is Fred's envy of Ken's success—his body, his prospects, his education, his success with girls—that tempts him to murder. It is the inroads of European spuriousness that are corrupting the remnants of vitality in Maoris in the place up north. And there is irony in a rationalist acknowledging irrational page 132 forces that are beyond the comprehension of his reason. To the Colonel's daughter, her home town was 'a very proper little town. No place for anybody with spirit.'

In contrast to the inhibiting forces, there are the points of growing. Children know things that adults have forgotten. There is the warm and comforting memory of being a boy with tooth-ache in granma's protective watchfulness. There is Boy feeling his way to terms with a half-understood adult world. There is the full humanity of the author's paternal grandmother.

There is the Unitarian youth's discovery that the navvy in the bar and his little girl with her rag doll are more profoundly alive than the girl at the church social. The Maoris in the dump up north are more sensitive and generous than the pakehas who are taking their money. Nick, no longer Dalmatian but not yet New Zealander, is more sensitive than his neighbours the Crumps; his tender groping adaptation, the narrator dimly senses, is his own situation and that of all New Zealanders, not yet grown into their time and place. Ted's affections, finding no outlet in his marriage, go out to a dog and a canary. The youth at the beach guest-house under the Norfolk pines finds no satisfaction in the pointless activity of his mother's sporting friends, and would rather emulate the aimless adventurous life of the old rolling stone, Fred Holmes, who is still free in spirit. The old man recalling the innocent love of Myrtle and old Bandy remembers that it taught him that up till then he had 'somehow managed to get life all wrong'; from that revelation he is appalled at the savagery of court sentences for sexual offences. It is the naked freshness of a reminiscence of the old man on the park seat that wakens the stranger into recognition, behind the mask of a cadging old man, of a boyhood hero, and into shame at the initial hardening of his heart. It is high spirits that lead Daisy Willoughby to what is, in the eyes of the town, her fall, and high spirits inspire the Colonel's daughter to lead Clem from respectability to his liaison with a piano. The writer of the Letter to a Friend, alert and sensitive himself, sees the contrast between the sensitive youth and his unresponsive, respectable father; the question is raised in the reader's mind, will the son turn into a copy of his father, or has a younger generation escaped the uniform?

When the forces of constriction are in direct conflict with living impulses, usually—depressingly—it is constriction that wins. Many of the characters like Bill in 'That Summer' or the narrator in 'The Making of a New Zealander' play it by ear and intuitively steer clear of conflict; outwardly they conform, inwardly they lie low, 'hang on', waiting for some gesture of loyalty or affection to which they will readily, if shamefacedly, respond. But whether they conform or not, it is, as Robert Chapman has said, 'with a purposelessness more horrible, not only because it is subconscious, but also because they could not mentally grasp the problem were it presented to them.'6

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But for those characters whose wills take sides in the conflict there can only be violent solutions. Fred envying Ken's possession of those qualities that bring success in the world can make no gesture more positive than drowning him. Victor, resenting Elsie's standoffishness and his own lust, burns the tom-cat and symbolically does violence to himself and to life. George, vain and homosexual, takes it out on the society that rejects him by mocking its orthodoxies and killing Tom who upholds them.

A number of Mr Sargeson's characters seek security in emotional relationships with men or with men as well as women; it is this desire, unrecognised in their society, that is starved in George and in Fred, that Tom cannot comprehend. It is such a desire that explains the narrator's regret when Ted's canary escapes and he goes back to his wife, or another narrator's when his gift of a pair of socks to Bill costs him his friendship with Fred. And it is in their taking for granted the monopoly of their men that most of the wives in these stories are so insensitive. Ted gets more satisfaction out of his dog and his canary. Jack would rather be outside digging his hole and his wife can't see the point of it anyway. Big Ben might have adapted himself to his new country, but his wife made no effort.

Occasionally the tables are turned, however, and in these stories the author allows his sympathies an ironic victory. Jack's wife isn't satisfied till the hole is filled in again and then complains that he will dig shelters for other people but not for his own family. Ben and his wife had left England to make a better future but they head straight back to the growing certainty of war. The milkman meets, in the woman with the piece of yellow soap, someone tough enough to extort exemption from the code of debtor and creditor. Aunt Emily, in a story not included in this collection, insists on weighing her feathers before she entrusts them to the man who will make her eiderdown, and she never knows that he stuffs it, not with her feathers, but with some cheaper material. Hilda and her girl-friend think they've worked it nicely with the two strangers but they are left waiting for the phone-call. The Colonel's daughter made it her business to break up a stuffy and loveless marriage, though Clem's second marriage can hardly be more to her liking.

At times indeed the author's sympathies get the better of his compassion. There is a hint of satisfaction when Fred defeats Ken. Wives are nags who give foolish advice and sensitive husbands like Ted and Jack have developed a kind of defensive taciturnity. The teller, if not the author, sneers at the nostalgic Englishwoman abroad, but in her kindliness she is a more attractive personality than the two French girls who are rude to her. Even the man who has lost his pal feels that Tom's self-righteousness was provocative. But in two of these stories compassion wins: in Mrs Potter crying over her knitting we suddenly see the pathos, not the irony, of the situation and we are reminded that the story is titled not 'Three Women' but 'Three Men'. The youth may have chosen to lead an adventurous page 134 life, but seeing Fred Holmes's coffin bouncing on the back of the truck, he realises that whatever sort of life he lives, there's always death at the end of it. And in 'An Affair of the Heart' if Airs Crawley's devotion to her son is a terrible thing it is also a beautiful thing.

Mr Sargeson's view is a compassionate one, but in his view humanity is perverse. In 'Tod' there is a small allegory of the human situation, mankind quarrelsome and affectionate in turn, calling on Tod, waiting for Tod to set things right.* In 'Cats by the Tail' it is sensual pleasure and the perverse pleasure of power that people seek. In 'An Attempt at an Explanation' there is a vision of life as a chain of parasitic relationships, a compassionate paradox of living hungry things preying on other living hungry things. The boy goes on:

If I'd been older perhaps I would have made a picture for myself of the earth as just a speck of dirt drifting in space, with human creatures crawling over it and crouching down and holding on tight just as the lice had done on the back of my hand.

It is, as H. Winston Rhodes has said,7 a universe of loneliness and indifference, in this respect like that of Arnold's 'Dover Beach', where the only thing that can make existence tolerable is human warmth; and those who are spiritually alive in Mr Sargeson's stories are those who are dimly aware that they are lonely and rootless and those who have warmth to offer. The dead ones are the staid ones—my Uncle, Ken, Tom, the clerks in the Department, the Methodist minister, Myrtle's guardians, granpa Munro, Jack's wife, Big Ben's wife, the undertaker—who could not conceive of the abandonment of man in the cold deserts of space, who do not recognise their own or others' need for affection and loyalty. It is essentially a view of life to which we have become accustomed in some post-war European writing.

The cold indifferent universe is actualised in the winter world of 'That Summer'. Bill is a type-figure of the displaced persons who inhabit so

many of the stories: he chooses displacement, planning to kick around in the city for so long as his money lasts; and Auckland under siege of the slump is an appropriate landscape. Even the improbable partnership of Bert and the transvestite Maggie is part of a world too peculiar to make sense to Bill, a world of the slightly grasping Cleggs living in squabbling partnership, of avenging detectives, impersonal labour exchanges, lonely strangers who have to be taken on trust though they are as likely to turn out spongers or thieves as decent blokes; a world in which to survive one has to be fertile in dodges like stealing money from milk-bottles or telling a hard-luck story to a parson or putting it across a medical board. In such a world the supreme consolation is the loyalty of a mate: 'A man page 135 wants a mate that won't let him down.' Bill chooses Terry because he is the sort 'that'd go solid with a joker'. Bill is faced with his one challenge, the only big decision of will he is called on to make: being loyal to Terry; and in his unrationalised way he makes it his one mission. For the sake of loyalty to Terry he turns down another offer of mateship from a stranger in the park, a farm job in the country and an offer from a girl. Yet, at the end,

when he has sent for the priest, he doesn't go back to Terry. Terry is left to die without his mate while Bill goes looking for a sheila. He plays it by ear and death is something he ducks away from. And the horrible thing is that all the experience of that summer will be no more to him than things that happened that summer: he will drift to another job, another mate perhaps, and he will have learnt little from it all that he didn't half-know already. That is Mr Sargeson's vision of man as the little man, kindly, fumbling, stoic and resourceful, submissive but independent; with feelings of his own though without the words to express them or the will to enforce them if the pressure against them is too great; compliant but indestructible.But even if in these stories we have, as Professor Rhodes has said, not a realistic representation of New Zealand life and society, but an artist's personal vision of life, it is nevertheless true that Mr Sargeson is writing from a particular time and place, that he is writing of a local variant of the human situation. In Up onto the Roof and Down Again, a diary of a brief return to the King Country, he recalls life on his well-read pioneer uncle's farm when he was a boy, 'a life that was nearly all work while the daylight lasted, but work that was rarely hurried and never scamped or ill-done, that was related to the seasons and the weather, but not to the day of the week or the time of the day, that had results you could see under your hands, and a meaning that had little to do with the money it brought.'8 He imagines he sees on a ridge of the Mamaku plateau a native honeysuckle that his uncle had identified for him (which he came to contrast with the tame English honeysuckle planted by a nostalgic old lady); and for him it stands 'not for New Zealand as it is, but New Zealand as it might worthily have been.' His uncle's brave vision has been lost, so has the warm humanity of his Cockney paternal grandmother; the New Zealand that is he measures in terms of that lost Eden. Mr Sargeson's stories are as much a comment on State-Advanced suburbia, on the pursuit of status-symbols, and the rejection of human comradeship in contemporary society as they are on the human situation; they are a comment on what he called, reviewing Janet Frame, 'the mental sleep from which there is no awakening, . . . the emotional strangulation that is slow but sure, and as deadly as death.'9 This personal vision Mr Sargeson has, with a patient and dedicated craftsmanship, pursued in his later work.

In his sketch 'The Last War' Mr Sargeson quietly excludes cliche sentiments and classroom chauvinism to consider honestly howthe 1914-18 war had affected him at the time. In the same way the vernacular in which page 136 so many of the characters in this collection talk and think is chosen to exclude falsity; and it is artistically appropriate also in that it represents the limits of their understanding of the forces that move them. Mr Sargeson's sensitivity in using it has been made more obvious by bad imitation in some of the apprentice work of other writers. There is considerable variation in style—more evident in the later stories—according to its aptness to each narrator, who is a different person in each story.


1.   James K. Baxter in Canta, 7 July 1948.

2.  Landfall, March 1953.

3.   Tomorrow, 18 August 1937, p. 656.

4.   'Conversation with a Landlady', Tomorrow, 7 August 1935, p. 16.

5.   Tomorrow, 3 August 1938, p. 625.

6.  Landfall, September 1947, p. 222.

7.   Landfall, March 1955, p. 28.

8.   Landfall, December 1951, p. 250.

9.  N.Z. Listener, 18 April 1952, p. 13.

1 James K. Baxter in Canta, 7 July 1948.

2 Landfall, March 1953.

3 Tomorrow, 18 August 1937, p. 656.

4 'Conversation with a Landlady', Tomorrow, 7 August 1935, p. 16.

5 Tomorrow, 3 August 1938, p. 625.

6 Landfall, September 1947, p. 222.

7 Landfall, March 1955, p. 28.

8 Landfall, December 1951, p. 250.

9 N.Z. Listener, 18 April 1952, p. 13.

* Tod of course suggests God, and there is a striking affinity in theme and title with Waiting for Godot. But more than this, Tod is German for death.