Title: A Mixed Performance

Author: Bill Pearson

In: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

Publication details: Heinemann Educational Books, 1974, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Keywords: Literature

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Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays

A Mixed Performance

page 75

A Mixed Performance

This essay was first published in Comment, Autumn 1960, as a review of Maurice Shadbolt's The New Zealanders (Gollancz and Whitcombe & Tombs 1959).

After all the éclat it is necessary to pass a cool eye over Mr Shadbolt's achievement, to see it not as some sudden exotic, blooming for a summer on London book-stands, but as work that has some relationship to New Zealand and is to be measured in the light of the New Zealand writing that London has not heard of.

The title alone stakes a grand claim; from that and from the setting of the stories one would expect some picture of New Zealand life: two of the eleven stories are set in the North Island backblocks, one at a Hokianga harbourside settlement, one in a North Island small town, one in a King Country mining town, three in Wellington or Auckland. There are three others set in London and Prague. Yet the total impression is one of disappointing confusion. The performance is so uneven that it is necessary to consider the stories separately.

The best stories are the first four (all of them set in the country) and of these the best is 'The Strangers', which poses a contrast between the ambitions of a young Maori and a pakeha farmer. I have said elsewhere that Mr Shadbolt is rare among New Zealand writers in that he does not use Maori characters as symbols or make them stereotypes: in this story Tui comes close to being a stereotype and there is something symbolic about him, yet there is a legitimate purpose in this. The theme of Maori-pakeha relations occurs in several stories: it is there, rather nebulously, in 'A Woman's Story', where the girl's close relationship with Ruia is part of her identification with her Northland environment, and it recurs, melodramatically, in 'The Waters of the Moon', where the liaison between the middle-aged teacher and her adolescent pupil is the source of her peace and identification with Northland. Yet, even in the best stories in the collection, there is a certain arbitrariness of theme and a lack of direction. The theme of 'The Woman's Story'—the rejection of 'Home'—is no longer page 76 a real one, and it only gets any force in this story from the fabrication of a very unusual factor—that the girl's mother, who resented Northland, brought the girl up to think that she would eventually settle in England. The main advantage of the theme here is that it provides a thread on which to hang a good deal of interesting local background and history. Mr Shadbolt has tried to supply the story with a clearer direction than it has by inflating the ending, turning the girl's acceptance of her homeland into a 'moment of revelation' which almost knocks her over, though in fact she had realised six pages earlier she was a New Zealander.

'Love Story' too is impressive and moving, and its ending is free from false dramatics; if it does not go deep or tell us anything new about delinquency, it is a picture of small-town adolescent life and adolescent injustice: but again the conditions from which the injustice springs are arbitrary and untypical—Paul's mother with her continual catechism about her love for him, and the character of Gloria's mother is improvised rather than convincing. In 'After the Depression' the point is the hopeless dedication of the militant unionist and the privations it causes his wife and child, but in this case the choice of technique—observing him from a rigid distance, like a film without score or commentary—prevents one from getting to know the man's mind.

In 'The Paua Gatherers' and 'Knock on Yesterday's Door' Mr Shadbolt moves to city life among young drifters, and the theme is their search for themselves and some kind of sexual arrangement which will disturb neither their vanity nor their right to infidelity. These stories of vain, wise-cracking, frightened men and level-headed women are inflated as if their self-made dilemmas were important. A more perceptive writer might have made one care whether Ann kept sleeping with Tim or went off with Ted, or might have made one understand what Val saw in Roger. The technique of 'Knock on Yesterday's Door'—moments of the present in slow motion sandwiched between long lapses into flashback—is quite ably handled.

In 'Play the Fife Lowly' the contrast now is between sensible women and empty-headed men, ex-college boys who know what they want and where they are going. There is some ambiguity in this story: if Tom, the homosexual desecrator of the college ikons, is meant to be preferable, he is nevertheless objectionable in the way he makes use of his Maori friends (they were Islanders in the Landfall version of the story) to further his own vindictive ends. Nor is it likely, in spite of Tom's bossiness, that the Maoris would have stayed so long at the party, singing and dancing, when they were made so unwelcome. The ending too is unnecessarily ambiguous: when Helen and Sylvia reach a moment of understanding, does it mean only that they have rejected their ex-college boy-friends, or more? If the point is worth making, it is worth making unambiguously.

The remaining New Zealand story 'The Waters of the Moon' is an unashamed exploitation of the exotic. Mr Shadbolt appropriates the name page 77 of Te Waiotemarama and confers it on Opononi or Omapere. He introduces not only the middle-aged teacher in love with her pupil, but also a lesbian nymphomaniac from Auckland, a sick retired journalist almost in love with the teacher, a mad old man who sits on the verandah of his house (where Hobson, Wakefield and Samuel Marsden had called) looking through a telescope for steamers that never come. What direction this story has comes from the question, posed by Cheryl and wondered about by Mr Fail: how is Isobel so calm and happy and what does she do for sex? It is essentially a vulgar question, and the ending when it brings the answer is overdone: the answer kills Mr Fail.

The other stories are set in Europe. 'Maria' is about a young smart-alec who thinks he has all the answers but is really afraid. 'Thank You Goodbye' is a slight and sentimental sketch of the parting of a Czech girl and a British visitor who had been to bed with her. The slickness of this piece depends on the gimmick by which their relationship is neatly expressed by the few phrases of English that the waiter knows. Mr Shadbolt's main interest in the story would seem to be its setting in a Communist city— which is described very superficially as a brief visitor might see it—and the foreign English of the Czech girl.

By far the worst story is 'River, Girl and Onion', which is embarrassing. Fabrication has become fanciful, spun out of emptiness. In this story, written in what is probably meant to be a style of witty irony, we are invited to connive in arch attitudes to sexual and political behaviour more factitious than real. None of the characters is real: each embodies a pose and each has been improvised from an invention that owes little to observation.

All this adds up to an unsureness of direction and purpose, reflected in the changes in stance and style, in ambiguous or worked-up endings, in the uncertainty whether to be flippant or serious in 'River, Girl and Onion', in the fact that in 'Love Story' the author, while he knows the motives of all other characters, only speculates on those of Mr Jackson, in his determination to believe that there are only two valid intellectual responses to the modern world, either the certainties of Communism or the uncertainties of smart bohemianism.

But if the author is unsure of himself, he is sure of everything else. He has that sort of confidence by which a feature journalist overrides subtleties and complexities in his topic. With as little diffidence as he introduces dialogue in Czech, Russian and Spanish, he can refer to Maori as 'a language almost forgotten', and write of '1350, the year of the great Polynesian migration.' He even writes with assurance about life in pre-revolutionary Russia. Too frequently he feels obliged to process the experience for the reader, to get between the reader and the experience with his own confident interpretation.

Mr Shadbolt does not dare to doubt his own preconceptions, and some of them are immature: Grafton beatniks are more vital people than page 78 undergraduates; the university is a sterile morgue of learning where lecturers pretend that Marx never existed; feeling is better than thinking: creation better than criticism; bohemianism is as valid as Communism. Such attitudes act as a barrier to the exploration of his characters: he has them all weighed up before he starts; they are idealised or dismissed in terms of his ready prejudices. There are few discoveries in his stories: the ending of 'Maria' does no more than reinforce what one knew from the beginning, that the hero's cleverness was inadequate. Where Mr Shadbolt should go deeper he usually adds; instead of revealing or exploring further depths of his characters, he adds details of biography or other incidentals, even to Mrs Benjamin's opinion of Franco, or the potted dossiers ('Joe, who wrote morbid sketches about rapes and suicides until the day he took a job in an advertising agency and then slashed his wrists seriously enough to be taken to a mental hospital;') which incidentally have the effect of implying a New Zealand urban life more complex and sophisticated than in fact it is.

The style itself, especially in the earlier stories, calls for some objection. Far from faithfully transmitting the experience, it acts as a screen. There are such fruity passages as 'leafy curtains of evergreen', 'fathomless landscapes of the heart'; such women's magazine stuff as 'her face twisting against him', 'tears stung her eyes', 'her teeth flashing'; such reverberant periphrases as 'one hand had fisted tightly around sand'. He has a fondness for verbs too dramatic to be exact: thunder slams, stars pepper the sky, air rasps a running girl's throat and feet hammer behind her, a hand gashes the mist on a carriage window, fire blooms blue-grey smoke. It is as if the writer has believed those manuals of advertising copy-writing that tell you that verbs are the most vivid and meaningful words in the language. Even more irritating is the trick of using intransitive verbs transitively and in unusual contexts—'the wind purred the dry grasses', 'feet scribbling the water', 'water glistens pale bodies'. Some of the verbs are repeated in so many ways that their vagueness of meaning becomes apparent: a fantail flickers, the glare of a match flickers Ann's face, light flickers the sea, lightning flickers the windows, a crowd flickers the light from headlamps ; Ruia's head is snapped back as she dances, Ann snaps on the radio, the wind snaps a wind-breaker, a lock snaps shut, Mr Fail's body snaps into motion; feet and bicycle wheels alike husk over dry grass; a lawn-mower chatters, a typist chatters the keys, Ann chatters dishes through soapy water, a sea-breeze chatters the pines; a breeze whispers curtains, Val's limbs whisper. One could go on. There is something essentially journalistic in this, an attempt to impress. But, far from being more vivid, the effect is misty. Mr Shadbolt is lacking in what is surely an indispensable quality in a writer, a feeling for the language. And the attitude to the reader is not one of equality, but rather condescending.

All these devices show that Mr Shadbolt is a self-conscious writer, with an audience closely in mind. That the audience is sometimes the English page 79 is indicated by his confident explanatory asides on Auckland ('that squat impassive city sprawled casually over a green South Pacific isthmus'), the West Coast ('a lawless part of the country'), on Hauhauism, and the 'great Polynesian migration.' But in the cosmopolitan stories he seems to have a New Zealand audience in mind. One cannot avoid the suspicion that Mr Shadbolt wanted to impress the English that he was not one of them, but of a sturdy independent race that had long cut itself free; and at the same time wanted to impress the locals with his travels, his snippets from foreign phrase-books, his understanding of the big world where things are happening. Nor can one avoid the suspicion that one strong impulse behind these stories is not to pass on some meaningful experiences but to make an impression as a writer.

Mr Shadbolt has a very good ear for dialogue, and is able to imply a great deal about a speaker through his turn of expression. One wishes that he would develop this and speak less in his own person, that he would learn to be humble towards his subject-matter, to forget his confident preconceptions and observe life and people with sympathy, seeing his own prejudices as simply part of the complexity. There is a great deal of good material in these stories which is not used to best effect, and the total impression of the collection is a rather distorted reflection of New Zealand.