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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays


page 137

I found when I began to think about New Zealand writing in terms of inheritance and adaptation that the metaphor was rather inflexible. It was not, to extend the metaphor, a question of a shifted plant having to adapt itself to new soil and climate; but a question of the shifted people and their descendants having to reorient their own consciousness, drop old assumptions about themselves and have the courage to make new ones, a question of their learning to recognise themselves in the limitations of their time and place and in their new relation to neighbouring peoples. I assume that collectively it is the function of a nation's artists, modifying Stephen Dedalus's words, to forge the conscience of their race, to provide a moral and imaginative context in which their people can feel, think, and behave. New Zealand's development towards an independent literature has been marked, like I suppose that of any other, by false trails, difficulty, personal suffering, and sweat. The hardest thing has been the recognition of reality.

I do not propose to trace this development; it has already been done in E. H. McCormick's survey, and in the introductions by D. M. Davin, R. M. Chapman, and Allen Curnow to their anthologies.1 All I intend to do is to provide some illustrations that I find illuminating in this emergence of the conscience of a people.

The settlers who arrived in their hundreds of thousands in the later nineteenth century, were mainly British men and women of the working and lower middle class whose minds had been formed in the middle nineteenth century. Inheritance in the form of the mores they brought with them has been a hindrance rather than a stimulus to writing, but as Robert Chapman has shown,2 it determined the themes of fiction for the first half of this century. The settlers, by means of Government buying and by page 138 persuasion and force and fraud had by the end of the century expropriated most of the usable land from the indigenous people who had occupied it for at least eight hundred years. By the end of the century they had established an economic relationship with the mother country by which New Zealand was an outlying farm providing food and wool to the metropolis. It is only in the last few years that there has been any threat to this relationship. The energies of the settlers went into the conversion of untilled land to pasture that would carry crops of butter, meat, and wool; other pursuits were considered inferior and some of them even harmful to material prosperity.

To some extent New Zealand began without a literary inheritance because—apart from very early settlers like Samuel Butler and Lady Barker, who did not stay—these land-hungry settlers were not a reading lot. From the 1890s until the accession of a Labour Government in 1935 their values dominated the country—the values of the puritanical hard-working small farmer. It was a morality hostile to the imagination, to art, even to reading since reading wasted time; it was embarrassed by the exhibition of emotion, except perhaps righteous envy and anger; it valued the practical man, even the handy man, more than the thinker. It wasn't a good time for a writer to be born, yet it is out of this time that the first signs of an assured and distinctive note in New Zealand writing emerged.

In some ways the atmosphere worked against clarity of vision; the truth couldn't be faced without sentimentality or deprecation and often enough was better ignored. Some examples of this I can illustrate from stories from Mr Davin's anthology:

[In this story a boy and his parents call on a neighbouring spinster whose mother has just died. There is a horse tied outside and they know she has taken a lover.]

'I did see the horse,' insisted Walter, and felt that like all older people his parents were in some sort of conspiracy against his finding things out. 'I did see the horse.'

'Of course you saw the damned horse,' said his father suddenly. 'Shut up about it, that's all.'

Jim was walking past, carrying a bottle with a straw stuck in it. They looked away and pretended they hadn't noticed but Auntie Laurel said quietly to Mum, Fancy bringing it out here, where everyone's having their lunch.

'Mother, mother, I know why the little boy hasn't got a father. It's 'cause he was killed at the war.'

'Margot, go inside at once.'

Mrs Chatterton stamped her foot, her voice broke shrilly.

'Margot! Do as I say, at once! And don't have so much to say for yourself.'

A people made up of Walter's father, Auntie Laurel, Mrs Chatterton page 139 and their like would hardly welcome a fiction which might display them in action and invite them to self-analysis.

One can see the oppressiveness in Blanche Baughan's story, 'An Active Family'. Miss Baughan came to New Zealand in 1900 when she was thirty. She was a sensitive and cultured woman, uneasy at the materialism of her new home and eventually she turned her energies from writing to championship of penal reform. In this story she celebrates the virtues of the very people whose ethos (I suspect) discouraged the creative impulse in her: her subject is a fanatically hard-working family—self-contained, independent, affectionate within the group—breaking in a farm. It is obvious that Miss Baughan is anxious not to be 'critical': almost every adjective, even the nouns and verbs, carry their load of approval or apologia. She even wishfully supplies what she missed, an appreciation of the arts, when Dad after his furious week's work sits down at the piano to play Schubert. Yet there is a question she does not ask: what is all this activity for? The family is breaking in the farm with the sole aim of selling it at improved value so they can buy another and break that in and presumably continue doing this till they sell up and retire in comfort— if they have lived long enough.

What I am saying is that Miss Baughan could imaginatively handle some of the reality around her but not all of it. A contrast with Lady Barker's sketch in the same anthology will make this clearer. She was in the country three or four years and because she knew she was returning and because her position as the only gentlewoman on her husband's sheep-station gave her an assurance almost aristocratic, she was able to see more clearly than writers of fifty years later. For example, she could notice without embarrassment or fear of accusations of vanity that the shepherds at her open-air Christmas dinner were uncomfortable while she remained, yet would be offended if she went away. I think Miss Baughan would have parried off such a thought.

Alice Webb was a writer who tried in a quiet and earnest way to consider moral and social problems as they presented themselves to women inclined to philosophize over a cup of tea, such problems as whether mothers' helps were overpaid, whether English war brides were as worthless as rumour said, whether clergymen had a soft job. Her most searching examination of conscience is 'The Patriot', and she asks the question whether the farmer who volunteered with his horse to fight in the First World War had made as great a sacrifice as his partner who stayed behind to manage the farm, doing two men's work without glory or complaint. As far as it goes it is a judicious question. But what she does not question is the rightness of '14-'l8 jingoism and because of this her story is denied the breadth that might have made it less parochial. One aspect of reality that the earlier writers did not examine was themselves and their own assumptions.

If Katherine Mansfield had stayed in New Zealand it is possible that page 140 her writing, in keeping with the moral climate of the country, would have been harsher and more austere, as it is in her early story, 'The Woman at the Store'. Expatriation was the price she paid for self-realisation as a writer, but imaginative repatriation is the impulse of some of her best later stories, those she wrote in homage to her young brother, killed in the war. 'I can't say how thankful I am to have been born in New Zealand, to know Wellington as I do, and have it to range about in', she wrote in her last year. It is these stories that have most attraction to New Zealanders and yet if she is still probably the best-known of our writers outside New Zealand, she had little influence either on her contemporaries or on subsequent writers. She found a way for herself, but it was one that others could not follow.

Some tried, or hoped for, emigration. It was almost impossible to get an imaginative book published at home—the population was not much over a million—and space for stories and verse in newspapers and magazines was limited, and sometimes unpaid. A generation of writers grew up who could only accommodate themselves to their situation by free-lance journalism and the hope of a book published in London, a market seen through a haze of outdated notions. If England had been home to Butler and Lady Barker, it became Home to a generation fifty to seventy years later, even though they were born in New Zealand: their spiritual Hawaiki and, if they could make it, their spiritual Mecca. Of those who emigrated it is only those who either returned or maintained their imaginative connection with New Zealand who achieved anything—Jane Mander, Alan Mulgan, D'Arcy Cresswell, A. R. D. Fairburn, M. H. Holcroft. Those who stayed away—John Guthrie is the most distinguished of them—did not fulfil their promise: it was a mistake to think that their modest talents could transplant. Yet the dilemma was real enough, and there is ambiguity in Fairburn's comment on it, written after it had passed:

I'm Older than You, Please Listen
To the young man I would say:
Get out! Look sharp, my boy,
before the roots are down,
before the equations are struck,
before a face or a landscape
has power to shape or destroy.
This land is a lump without leaven,
a body that has no nerves.
Don't be content to live in
a sort of second-grade heaven
with first-grade butter, fresh air,
and paper in every toilet;
becoming a butt for the malice
page 141 of those who have stayed and soured,
staying in turn to sour,
to smile, and savage the young.
If you're enterprising and able,
smuggle your talents away,
hawk them to livelier markets
where people are willing to pay.
If you have no stomach for roughage,
if patience isn't your religion,
if you must have sherry with your bitters,
if money and fame are your pigeon,
if you feel that you need success,
and long for a good address,
don't anchor here in the desert—
the fishing isn't so good:
take a ticket to Megalopolis,
don't stay in this neighbourhood!

The difficulty for the writer who stayed at home was to achieve imaginative integrity; working alone in an atmosphere of discouragement it was not easy to relate his literary inheritance to his actual experience, to sort out what experience was important to him and his neighbours, even to know how he felt about his experience. It is not surprising that a number of minor talents with only their talents and a desire to write to sustain them were tempted into poses and pretensions—attitudinizing, sentimentality, trick endings, whimsy, fantasy: Ngaio Marsh and M. H. Holcroft (in their early writing) were not immune. Of a collection of twenty-five stories published in 1930 I find only four, none of them good, which strike me as reflecting anything real about New Zealand at all; of a collection of twenty published in 1938 again only four.3 I will illustrate. In one of them the driver and fireman of a train carrying the Governor-General get drunk and hit top speed for the boast of having given the Governor a fright. There is a colonial egalitarianism about it that rings true. In another, a Scots settler takes his bride to a sod hut on a farm, neglects her for the farm; she is bitter and is tempted to run off with his mate, who when he returns to claim her a year later finds her content and engrossed in a baby. In another, a young farmer's efforts to break in land are not appreciated by his family who want a town life; they leave and he stays to marry a local girl who he thinks will help him but her plans are to persuade him to sell up and move to town. In the fourth, a man in the backblocks longs for escape to sea but is loyal to his responsibilities first to his mother and when he marries, to his wife and family. When his family grow up, he runs away as far as the Auckland waterfront, takes fright and goes home to find that his wife too has dreamt of freedom and left. I have said that these are not good stories, but they are the only ones in this collection in which the page 142 plot derives from some reality in New Zealand life and is not a cliche or arbitrary construct set against a New Zealand background.

The greatest indignity, to my mind, was The New Zealand Artists' Annual (1926-32) produced by an unlikely combination of writers and cartoonists; alternately pretentious and apologetic, always self-conscious, it strikes a modern reader as wanting to demonstrate that the writer was a philistine like anyone else but he must be allowed his moments of soulfulness. Yet three years before this publication had started, one poet working alone and without audience had stoically achieved the miracle of dignity and integrity. He had not left the country, had in fact written, 'I think I have no other home than this'. He had written some of these poems before he was nineteen, and he published them himself. The difficulty of his achievement is apparent in this poem; so is the fact that his allegiance was to an inheritance quite foreign to his immediate community:

Song of Allegiance
Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead
Donne lies in a lowly bed

Shelley at last calm doth lie
knowing 'whence we are and why'

Byron Wordsworth both are gone
Coleridge Beddoes Tennyson

Housman neither knows nor cares
how 'this heavy world' now fares

Little clinging grains enfold
all the mighty minds of old . . .

They are gone and I am here
stoutly bringing up the rear

Where they went with limber ease
toil I on with bloody knees

Though my voice is cracked and harsh
stoutly in the rear I march

Though my song have none to hear
boldly bring I up the rear.

New Zealand now had the beginnings of a poetic inheritance of its own. Mason's example and that of Ursula Bethell—brought out by an obscure London publisher—and the fact that the depression of the 'thirties made young intellectuals question the hollow orthodoxies of their community, made it comparatively easy for a younger generation of poets to follow: A. R. D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, D'Arcy Cresswell Charles Brasch, Basil Dowling. One of them set up the press, the Caxton, that was to publish them. A national inheritance of verse had been page 143 established by 1940, and if since 1950 a group of younger poets has challenged it, their position is still in relation to it. This group which includes James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson and Alistair Campbell and younger poets, see the development not as Mr Curnow has presented it as a search for reality culminating in Mason and the Caxton poets who have made the younger poets possible, but as a growth towards maturity and freedom from the preoccupations of time and place evident in those older poets. They have concerned themselves more with urban and international themes and with urban personal relations. And yet I feel there has always been something unreal about the argument, except the spirit of gang warfare in which it has sometimes been conducted. It misrepresents Mr Curnow's performance both as editor and poet to say that the verse he admires or writes is concrete only in a local or regional way, or that the themes of Mason, Fairburn, and Glover have no more than local relevance; on the other hand, many of Baxter's and Campbell's poems are fairly precisely 'located' in the backblocks and some of Johnson's in suburbs of the welfare state. There has, in any case, been no obstacle to publication. Since the inception of state patronage of literature after the war and Mr Johnson's foundation of the Poetry Yearbook, which he has edited since 1951, poetry, if only because production costs are cheaper, has become the least difficult form of writing to publish; certainly easier to publish than it was in Mason's time.

Almost contemporary with the political defeat of the small farmers' party in 1935, Frank Sargeson's sketches and stories began to appear in a left-wing journal Tomorrow, which ran for five years. Mr Sargeson's first sketches were modest and deceptively inconsequential. What strikes one about them at first is their unpretentiousness, their apparent artlessness; yet Mr Sargeson is a man deeply versed in an inheritance European, American and Australian. Seen against the stories in the collections I have mentioned the distinction of his is that they never overreach. He set out to undermine respectability by exposing the dead tissue in the minds of the spiritually dead and revealing points of growth in the minds of the spiritually alive, whom he most often found among social outcasts and underdogs. He had travelled, and returning had worked single-mindedly as a writer. He was more fortunate than Mason in that he soon found an editor and later a publisher (the Caxton Press) willing to publish him. In A Man and his Wife (1940) he had achieved a sense of identity and of audience; he could write for his community without the mediation of London, without the occasional self-consciousness one finds say in Robin Hyde or John A. Lee. However, it was reassuring that he had been accepted by the American New Directions and John Lehmann's New Writing.

Mr Sargeson had done what Katherine Mansfield had not, had cleared some tracks that others might confidently follow: only his senior in age and date of first publication, John A. Lee, and his more-or-less contemporaries in first publication, Roderick Finlayson and John Mulgan, can be said to page 144 be independent of him. Those who to a greater or lesser degree are indebted to him include Dan Davin, A. P. Gaskell, John Reece Cole, David Ballantyne, Janet Frame, O. E. Middleton, Maurice Duggan, Phillip Wilson, and Bruce Mason. Mr Sargeson I think established—or at least extended—a tradition in New Zealand fiction of liberal humanism, tolerance, sympathy for the little man and an intolerance of pretension. An outsider could say 'Well, you'll find all that in Fielding'. But it had to be done in local terms. A more recent group of writers of fiction—Ian Cross, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Maurice Shadbolt, Noel Hilliard, M. K. Joseph, Marilyn Duckworth, Maurice Gee—have grown up independently of him, but it would be fair to say that their success would have been less possible without Frank Sargeson's break-through. There has not been among prose-writers the same polarisation into generations and factions as among the poets and Mr Sargeson's eminence is generally recognised.

I was surprised to find that the number of New Zealand writers of fiction of merit who have appeared since Sargeson is more than thirty. In the last seven years the market within New Zealand for New Zealand novels and stories has grown considerably. It reflects the fact that the country is going through an introspective phase, one of self-analysis and self-criticism. I find this a hopeful sign. It is good for us that our readers and critics are of our community, that we don't stand or fall by the chance notice of a reviewer in one of the half-dozen London quality journals, coping with his weekly batch. A good many of the books that are important in our history have not been noticed in London, and often it is obscure publishers who have brought them out. But the only thing surprising in this is that it took us so long to learn to stand on our own feet.

Expatriation is no longer a problem. All writers have felt the need to get out for a while to see the wider world. Of recent writers who have stayed away longer than others, almost all—James Courage, Dan Davin, David Ballantyne—have kept up the imaginative connection with home; Rewi Alley in China would be the only exception I can call to mind.