Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

II. Topics for Study and Discussion

II. Topics for Study and Discussion

page 150

Chapter 1 (pp. 9-21)

1. At the time of their first publication, these novels raised quite a storm. In the light of M. H. Holcroft's remarks, can you suggest why? David Ballantyne's The Cunninghams, 1948; Jean Devanny's The Butcher Shop, 1926; Jane Mander's The Story of a New Zealand River, 1920; John Lee's Children of the Poor, 1934; Janet Frame's Owls Do Cry, 1957; Dan Davin's For The Rest of Our Lives, 1947.

2. Now that plenty of the letters and memoirs of early settlers are in print, it is possible to assess the basis of truth in our first New Zealand novels. How do Isabella Aylmer and Charlotte Evans and the rest compare with, for instance, Lady Barker in Station Life in New Zealand, 1870, or Station Amusements in New Zealand, 1873?

Other records which picture pioneer life are Charlotte Godley's Letters from Early New Zealand, 1951, Alison Drummond's collection Married and Gone to New Zealand, 1960, or, for the menfolk, Samuel Butler's A First Year in Canterbury Settlement, 1863, and F. E. Maning's Old New Zealand, 1863.

3. It has been suggested that the writer who wishes to set a serious novel in the Maori past faces a difficult task; can you say whether any modern writers about the past of a non-European race have succeeded in making their stories both truthful and interesting? Is it easier for a writer on India or China, than, say, on Africa or Polynesia? What seem to be the major difficulties?

Would you agree that on the whole our writers have exploited the Maori theme, rather than attempted to understand or interpret it?

4. New Zealand pioneer experience took place between 1850-90, when literary models for would-be novelists were somewhat conventional. Suppose, instead, that we had been colonised between 1920-60; would the models of that period have provided our novelists with more effective techniques—or with worse ones? Imagine Distant Homes planned in imitation of Virginia Woolf, or Wild Will Enderby copying James Joyce, or Taranaki, A Tale of the War in the style of Hemingway! Would you say there is any trace in present-day local fiction of the influence of the great moderns?

Chapter 2 (pp. 22-34)

1. In The Deepening Stream, 1940, M. H. Holcroft writes, "The empty spaces lead us straight towards the unknown ..." Do you think that George Chamier's philosophical boundary rider Dick was a likely or typical figure in the 1890s? Is there any evidence today that such back-country isolation produces the preoccupation with "the unknown" of which Holcroft speaks?

2. Writing in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in September 1958, W. H. Pearson comments on attitudes to the Maori in some page 151 of our Pakeha fiction. "Often the subject is the love of a white man for a Maori maiden, sometimes a 'princess'," he says, "but never of a white woman for a Maori man. That would be getting too close to the bone, because these stories tended to move from real possibilities into an idyllic world of the imagination."

Does this seem to be true of the Maori novels so far discussed? Is it true of later ones which you know? Is the choice of a white hero and Maori heroine dictated by the author's deliberate "idyllic" imagination as Pearson suggests, or perhaps, at any rate in the early days, by the realities of the social situation?

Do any of the Maori novels discussed in this chapter satisfy you as having a serious artistic purpose?

3. Do you think that the women writers' preoccupation with the problems of the educated woman in marriage did reflect an actual New Zealand situation? Is there any evidence of the persistence of the topic in current writing by and for women?

Chapter 3 (pp. 35-49)

1. "Tutira is recalling and exploring experience, with a view to realising its meaning. By contrast, many New Zealand romances are merely picture-makers for what is behind their readers' daydreams, and make no exploration at all."

Would you agree with that judgment?

2. Is it still true today that, as A. R. D. Fairburn puts it in the poem quoted at the head of the chapter, the young man who is "enterprising and able" must "get out"? Which of our contemporary writers have made "the long migration"?

3. Would it be just to say that Nelle Scanlan's Pencarrow series is "exploiting", not "interpreting" New Zealand life?

4. In The Uses of Literacy, 1957, Richard Hoggart devotes some time to a discussion of popular fiction. Some of his comments are— "These publications must aim to hold their readers at a level of passive acceptance, at which they never really ask a question, but happily take what is provided . . . There must be no significant disturbing of assumptions . . . [This is] not the attitude to language of the creative writer, trying to mould words into a shape which will bear the peculiar quality of his experience, . . . but a facility with thousands of stock phrases which will set the figures moving on the highly conventionalised stage of their readers' imaginations."

How far is this verdict applicable to New Zealand light fiction? page 152 Lee, of course, had nineteenth-century social novels in mind, such books as Bleak House (Dickens) or Mary Barton (Mrs Gaskell). More recent writers who have written about teenage delinquency are more sophisticated in their technical approach. Nevertheless, useful comparisons may be made with Ian Cross's The God Boy, James Farrell's Studs Lonigan, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, Joyce Cary's Charley is My Darling, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Chapter 4 (pp. 50-62)

1. E. H. McCormick says of John Lee's Children of the Poor, that it "contained too much unassimilated descriptive matter and too many passages of undisguised propaganda for it to be classed in the first rank of fiction".

2. In Check to Your King the point of view throughout is really Robin Hyde's; she makes her controlling consciousness deliberately obvious. Yet frequently she varies this procedure by presenting her material indirectly, through Charles and his letters, or through the thoughts of Emily or Isabel. How well does this technique work?

Would you agree that the method adopted for the narration of Check to Your King is related to Robin Hyde's desire to show that "truths had second selves", and that the truth about de Thierry has "a double face"?

3. In an article in Landfall for September 1953, James Bertram comments on Robin Hyde, "... we must judge her literary output as imperfect, marred by attitudinising, and too often shrill ... we have noted in her certain limitations that were exaggerated—if they were not largely imposed—by the colonial dilemma ..."

What is your view?

Chapter 5 (pp. 63-78)

1. Reviewing Dan Davin's Roads From Home, Sargeson wrote, "Something very like New Zealand is to be found in astonishing abundance inside the covers of his novel."24 He then adds that this sense of reality is due to the fact that the book takes the puritan spirit for granted, puritanism being a major influence on our behaviour. Would you agree, either about Davin's book, or about the importance of puritanism in New Zealand life?

2. Do you agree with the suggestion that Frank Sargeson's / Saw in my Dream is about the search for a real self?

3. Robert Chapman, reviewing David Ballantyne's The Cunninghams in Landfall, June 1949, writes:

"The familiarity of Gilbert suggests that New Zealand prose writers may be experiencing a not unlikely temptation to listen with Mr Sargeson's 'asdic' and thus receive only lower middle class fish noises and an occasional submarine character."

Does this seem to be true, either of The Cunninghams, or of other post-Sargeson writing, even up to the present day?

4. Obviously the present writer does not have as high an opinion of James Courage's novels as many critics do. What is your view?

Chapter 6 (pp. 79-94)

1. "Well, if you want realism, you must put up with realism; it page 153 isn't nice." (Kippenberger.) Where should the line be drawn, on artistic grounds, in a war novel?

2. Which seems the best novel, to readers with war experience, Brave Company, For the Rest of Our Lives, or I'll Soldier No More?

3. The novel proper is about the interaction of life and character; its plot springs dramatically from what people are, as much as from what they do. War is accidental, and its events are without personal causation. Must war novels, then, be always of a special kind?

4. E. H. McCormick notes that the background of Ruth Park's novels is "only too recognisably New Zealand—a land of Maoris, moas, spouting geysers, and snowclad peaks" into which is invariably introduced "a female waif whose vicissitudes provide a slender plot". His verdict is that "Ruth Park's not inconsiderable feat is to unite two art forms and two epochs, to suggest at once Mrs Aylmer and Jennifer Jones".

What is your view?

Chapter 7 (pp. 95-112)

1. One of the most obvious perils for the serious New Zealand novelist is that revealed by the libel action over Guthrie Wilson's Sweet White Wine. What should be the attitude of the creative artist to his raw material? How far may a writer go in drawing from life?

2. Three of the major novels of the 1950s show unusual technical skill—Spinster, Owls Do Cry and The God Boy. Would it be true to say that their special approach must have been dictated by the inwardness of the experience which is the subject of each novel? Would more external methods of storytelling have been so successful?

3. Would you agree that Ian Cross maintains exactly the right level for Jimmy's vocabulary and phrasing throughout The God Boy? (A beautiful gutzer, kids, sort of, do his block, like nobody's business, bullswool, a bit iffy, a heck of a splash.) When other persons are heard to speak—the nuns, Dad, Molly, Father Gilligan, Mum—is Jimmy's level of speech adapted accordingly?

4. Do any of the comments made in Incense to Idols about the New Zealand way of life seem to you to have a basis in truth?

5. In its issue of July 1932, the little Auckland magazine, Phoenix, in a remark already quoted, stated, "We are hungry for the words that shall show us these islands and ourselves; that shall give us a home in thought". Do you think that such words have yet been found by any of our novelists?

Chapter 8 (pp. 113-30)

1. I have attempted to draw a line between "light" and "serious" fiction; what are your views on the qualities that distinguish them? Would you disagree with any particular decisions?

2. Bill Pearson said in 1952 that if an artist is to be honest, "his page 154 audience must be honest; they must be prepared to speculate about themselves. This is something New Zealanders will not do." Discuss our attitude to "honest" books about ourselves. Do you think that in 1965 we still refuse to "speculate"?

3. Overseas critics have often regretted Janet Frame's "aimless events and objectless soliloquies" which, says Time, "belong in a fashionably satiric exposition of meaninglessness". The truth is otherwise, for rational control of her material is inevitably difficult for her. What do you think is the value of her kind of creative writing?

4. How much insight into truth do you find in the novels about our small town life?