The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories
Vincent O’Sullivan (ed),
Oxford University Press, $39.95
Anthologies used to be an occasion for cautious celebration in the New Zealand literary circle. Historical anthologies clearly showed that with every writer we were getting better and better. Anthologies of contemporary writers either allowed us to speak for ourselves, or were an opportunity for marginalised groups to announce their increasing confidence. This could be valuable work, especially at a time when opportunities for publication were limited. Recently, however, this has given way to a number of ‘best of’ anthologies that remind me of those ideal sports teams we used to put together at the back of the room in standard three. Was it George Nepia or Don Clarke for fullback? The fun was really in the pros and cons.
What is significant is that we now seem to have a body of work to choose from. When Dan Davin edited the first collection of New Zealand short stories for Oxford University Press in 1953, with help from Frank Sargeson and E H McCormick, the problem was who to put in. As Vincent O’Sullivan notes at the close of his introduction to this, The Oxford Book of New Zealand Short Stories, the problem has been who to leave out. O’Sullivan’s top team is – as you might expect – both sensible and interesting, and a literate tourist in the bookstore at Auckland International Airport who is tired of thriller novels and gossipy magazines in slick covers could find this selection of New Zealand short fiction satisfactorily representative. This book’s slick cover displays a photo of what our tourist will have seen most often on his or her journey – an empty landscape. Populating that landscape has been the constant task of the writers inside.
O’Sullivan has included several stories from the 19th century, and this I think is a useful rescue job as yet another generation of critics learn at their mothers’ knees that early New Zealand writers were unable to see their adopted country as other than a European landscape. Certainly the landscape is a major factor in these stories, and sometimes cloys, but this is in part a result of the sheer sparseness of the human presence. It is astonishing to compare these with the last three stories in the collection, where the landscape has all but vanished. But Lady Baker and Henry Lawson, with their proto-Sargesonian talk, have clearly caught the flavour of something outside Europe. Now that their attitudes and values can be seen in a clear historical context, we can enjoy these stories without condescension, and hope that our own great-grandchildren will be kinder to us. Even Kipling, if we close one eye, has something to say, although if his prophecy of ‘the Oamaru Shakespeare, and the Timaru Tennyson, and the Dunedin Dryden’ were less congenial we might prefer to keep both eyes firmly open.
At the other end of the book O’Sullivan has devoted ample space to new writers, and I would like to think that he is correct in suggesting that their diversity of style reflects an increased awareness of the diversity in New Zealand society. I found Anthony McCarten’s ‘Baby Clare’, John Cranna’s ‘Archaeology’ and Barbara Anderson’s ‘Up the River with Mrs Gallant’ remarkable for a panache that New Zealand writers could seldom manage even 10 years ago, a reaffirmed sense of confidence in the relationship of writer to subject that began with Maurice Duggan. Before Duggan, as O’Sullivan notes, you wrote in either the manner of Mansfield or the school of Sargeson, and for that reason I would like to have seen another story in the collection with or instead of the much-anthologised ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’.
So at the end of the day what sort of society does our literate tourist read about between these covers? A land still without much sense of exuberance, where lives can be distressingly harsh, where local forms of overseas prejudice are all too common; it is still a frontier society perhaps at the end of the world, but whose literature can make claims to lay it bare. This is reason enough, surely, for cautious celebration once again.
Ian Richards has published a collection of stories, Everyday Life in Paradise, and is working on a biography of Maurice Duggan.