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


In comparison with the lean years of the thirties, the years 1940-9 are quite fat ones. Dan Davin's first novel appeared in 1945, as did Frank Sargeson's, though he of course had published short stories before then; James Courage's first is dated 1948; so is Roderick Fin-layson's. There are several good novels which represent "one performance only", such as David Ballantyne's The Cunninghams, and Erik de Mauny's The Huntsman in his Career. (See chapter eight.) A number of writers keep the entertainment story alive, including the Four Experts already discussed, as well as a group of newer romancers who continue on into the fifties and provide a good deal of bread-and-butter New Zealand reading.

Some generalisations are possible. Three novels draw upon the material of small homogeneous local groups, national or religious in origin. These are Helen Wilson's Moonshine, Dan Davin's Cliffs of Fall and Roads from Home (and later, No Remittance). There is a group of war novels, beginning with Dan Davin's For the Rest of Our Lives. Two writers, Erik de Mauny and R. M. Burdon, take up the theme of outlawry and pursuit which John Mulgan found fruitful. Three deal with the tensions of lower suburbia as the young experience them, Frank Sargeson, David Ballantyne, and James Courage.

Other groupings may be noted. Sargeson's great originality, for instance, lies in his inventing a convention of toneless, colloquial dialogue or thought-monologue which suggests our speech rhythm and idiom. In this F. S. Anthony and M. Escott had been before him, but neither was so convincing. Ballantyne and Finlayson also attempt to get our way of speech on to paper.

The novels of the 1940s moreover, have in common an avoidance of any crusade. None of them has a message, as had John Lee and John Mulgan. Is passionate devotion to a cause something which died after 1945?

There is little more, either, of the open expression of the "urge to be a country" of which Robin Hyde spoke. Novelists go about their business of interpreting something to somebody without being selfconsciously national. Only in the exploiting fiction of the time, as still today, does obtrusive local colour flaunt itself on the pages. What page 64 may be called the "tourist novel" still babbles of bellbirds; the serious novel has outgrown the tendency.

Finally, only one of the major novels of the decade has a conventional old-fashioned plot. Plots aplenty feature still in light fiction, but the thoughtful novel uses other scaffolding. Helen Wilson's Moonshine is the exception. She works with the old ingredients, a hero, a heroine, a villain and a contrived mechanism. Most novels of this time do not have a hero, except in the sense of having a central figure, and none has a heroine, though there are womenfolk around. They even have no villains, unless circumstances, war, slumps, fate, can be said to be villainous. In the 1940s our writers no longer see the world in Technicolor, nor in black and white, but only in a drab grey for which no one in particular can be blamed.