Funnier, meaner Sargeson beyond this good Life, Vincent 0’Sullivan

Frank Sargeson: A Life
Michael King
Penguin, $49.95 hardback (paper to come)
ISBN 0 670 83847 0

It is easy to appreciate the view that impartial biography ‑ if such a thing ever really exists ‑ is not likely to be written for 50 or so years after the life in question. The dust, you might say, takes at least that long to settle. Certainly it seems that any biography written while those who knew its subject survive can’t help but be two books in one, judged by two different audiences. The smaller the community that life was lived in, the more oppressive this fact may be. Michael King must have known that, come publication, he’d be manoeuvring between two lines of fire.

Those who knew Frank Sargeson will inevitably look to see how this large, generously illustrated, scrupulously researched biography squares with their conception of the man. Are these the qualities that defined him, is this a just estimate of his gifts, is this Sargeson in his living fullness? Or is he, perhaps, being gently shepherded towards a more crafted image? As we know from what has been written on Baxter, there is a good deal of emotion and varying degrees of skill expended on the question of “who knew Jim best?” Who is most likely to have the inside story? This, of course, is the kind of question that carries less interest, or even none at all, for those who did not personally know Sargeson and who are concerned with rather different things from the concerns of confreres and contemporaries. These are “the intelligent general readers”, who look for the kind of pattern that emerges, as in any life, as unintended design or as willed projection.

A biography such as Sargeson: A Life can’t help but hope that it satisfies two quite different audiences ‑ the privately informed and the simply intelligently curious; the true believers, as it were, those who regard Sargeson as iconic forebear, and those who may come at that a little more sceptically. What raises monumentally this challenge which King faced is that as well as being an elusive and compulsive maker of fictions, his subject also wrote voluminously about himself and wrote with the cunning and the dedicated self-absorption that the game of autobiography pretends to put aside. Sargeson had already chipped out a public image of himself and his country which by the time of his death was so firmly in place that, for some at least, there was a whiff of the blasphemous in thinking there may have been another story possible as well. This is where New Zealand writing began, this was the authentic sound of what we were. And you’d better believe it.

My interest in taking up the Life was primarily in the extent to which Sargeson himself would insist that his, story be told in the way he already had told it. This was the third audience Michael King would have to answer to. And what he brings off so impressively is that his subject does speak for himself, does give his side, entertainingly and perceptively and, need one say, deftly manipulative ‑ the true New Zealand writer, frankly told. But King, sympathetically, and with his own deftness, stalks him at each stage, saying: “This was so, indeed, but there was this as well.” My regret, I suppose, is that at times he could have drawn rather more on Sargeson’s unofficial writings, the grab-bag of correspondence with its shaftings and flare-ups that would not have made the picture nicer but certainly more vivid. There is just a touch of that shepherding that gives his man a rather favoured run.

The Sargeson story, in terms of large events or great occasions, is pretty straightforward, fairly low-key. A life of books and writing, of mainly private enthusiasms and a cautious public persona, isn’t likely to be spectacular. And when King’s afterword spells out that this is not a literary biography, that discussion of the writer’s writing will not really be entered on, then the core of Sargeson, or at least the details of a mind at work where it best works, is virtually excised.

But how well King does manage to trace that distant figure, born Norris Davey in Hamilton in 1903, through the maze of puritanism, dreariness, subterfuge and courage that led to what we now mean by “Sargeson”. How well he catches that world of wowser conservatism and the sheer effort called on to beat one’s own life into shape beyond its pervasive, monumental narrowness. When in his early twenties ‑ and as a law clerk in Wellington Norris was apprehended in a homosexual tryst it was clear once and for all that his own values and the orderly, communal bigotries he was raised in could not survive under the same roof. Whether with family or nation, his integrity demanded for 50 years that he sustain his defiant role as stranger at the gate.

Although Frank Sargeson ‑ as young Davey became after the court case and his two years on his uncle’s mid-North Island farm ‑ never mentioned in print or to heterosexual friends the incident that so affected his life and changed his name, his writing reverts time and again to his family’s strictness. Yet as King displays, the authorised version was conveniently edited. However shocked Sargeson’s father may have been, he was admirably supportive when his son faced charges of sexual depravity. He was instrumental in his son’s not going to prison, just as Norris was complicit in obscuring his own responsibility when the other man was sentenced to five years hard labour.

Yet it is from this point that Sargeson’s discomfort with his family hardened into an implacable, self-righteous standoff. To resist all that their small-town methodism represented became, as it were, the first essential of the artistic life, although it was in the family bach that Frank would live, rent free, until it was left to him at his father’s death in 1946. (King does not point out, although it is a resonant enough fact, that Edwin Davey supported his writer son for much longer, even if rather more modestly, than did Harold Beauchamp his daughter.) There was no room for compromise. The middle class was philistine, venal, intolerant and obtuse, while value adhered to those who, as Joyce had said in a vastly different bid for freedom, attempted to fly free of such nets. If one wanted humane values, one looked to men who worked on the land, to the uncommitted, the itinerant, the marginal.

Sargeson’s sexual preference reinforced this sense of the beleaguered few, and the persecuting many, the censorious centre and the defiant living edge. This perception of New Zealand life, grounded squarely enough on his own experience, then moulded a prescriptive view of what New Zealand writing should be, with broad consequences for at least two generations of writers. Although he read voraciously and worked so earnestly at refining a gift which he himself judged fairly modest, Sargeson’s choices in the way he lived imposed a template on what he thought appropriate in depicting the country he was both immersed in and at odds with.

While intellectually he responded so alertly to the forms and experimentation of what was going on in contemporary literature elsewhere, he saw such writing as irretrievably élitist for a New Zealander. It was, after all, the writing favoured overseas, and to a lesser extent here, by intellectuals, by economically privileged communities, by an establishment inhospitable to the sexually marginal men he was drawn to, those for whom he felt it necessary to give a voice. One could not find an adequate style for the provincial and the hitherto inarticulate, and accommodate the seductions of modernism and the fashionable as well. And although he admired Australian writing when he came to it, he did so comparatively late.

It was important to him to believe that he worked from scratch, that he would not only be the first to give a certain kind of New Zealander an authentic voice, but to have others believe that it was the only possible voice. (His distaste of Mansfield is in itself an intricate nest of resentments.) Those early stories, which are still his best, were remarkable in that they did find a fresh way of constructing New Zealanders. But they were remarkable as well in biographical terms, for how such sophisticated reading had to be put on hold, as it were; and for how he convinced readers for so long that the “real” New Zealand was the one he himself inhabited. Not to favour the inarticulate, not to be uneasy with emotion, not to be threatened by domesticity, was somehow to side with the enemy, to have chosen Mr and Mrs Davey of London Street, Hamilton, with their hymns and materialism and hetero prejudices, over the free spirit of mateship.

Most writers, perhaps, evolve a mythos that best serves their work, a sustaining fabrication that nourishes a drive towards a particular fiction. That Sargeson’s personal fable became the assumed fable of his country is extraordinary, the belief for so long that his was the appropriate, even the necessary, style to best represent what in fact was so much more diverse than that style could embrace. It was not until Duggan and Frame that the point was clearly made. Sargeson generously admitted as much, when after reading Immanuel’s Land in 1956 he pondered: “The stranglehold which I see now I imposed on New Zealand prose with my own brand of New Zealand language (which at the time had sufficient objective validity to have an inhibiting influence) can be decisively broken.”

This generosity, in numerous manifestations, is one of the refrains of the biography. Janet Frame is prime witness to what Sargeson was willing to do for writers. Yet other friends mattered quite as much as his literary ones and again King unfolds the hospitality that extended over decades, the money given away and occasionally shamelessly bludged from him. There’s the deeply touching account of his final passion for the only significant character who is not actually named in the book, who took $10,000 over several years and finally refused so much as to answer his pleading letters, while continuing to cash a weekly cheque. It’s the sadder for the inherent. comedy in the triangle of a man in his seventies, another in his sixties and the disturbing element, a young woman of 18. By the end of King’s biography, you care a good deal for this man and the painful lesson he himself would have wanted to impart ‑ that you don’t stop loving merely because your lover has behaved so badly.

It’s because there’s no doubting a number of things, that breadth of spirit, to begin with, the knack for unaffected friendships, the courage when a carefully constructed life begins to crack up and the 50 years sticking to a tough and seldom comfortable vocation, that I think King might have shown us rather more of that other Sargeson ‑ the one that compelled even Keith Sinclair, a true master of the malicious, to stop seeing the older man.

A few events are set out that reveal something of this. There is the muddled quarrel with Blackwood Paul, the rather shabby backing away from the difficult but magnificent Karl Wohlfskehl, the nastiness of the anonymous letter to the press attacking the young Shadbolt. But how much was lost, by way of entertainment as well as revelation, in not drawing more on Sargeson’s correspondence. It is there one gets the true grain of the man, the delight in ideas and friendships alright, but also the penchant for sniping, smut, the retailing of frailties that led him to sign off one letter, “God, I’m a gossip!” How diverting it would have been to hear him inform Glover in the late 1930s that D’Arcy Cresswell, who “looks like one of those little men who sell Freudian postcards on the steps of the Madeleine in Paris”, was “between a shit and a shiver” over his verse play The Forest, although it established him as a “genius beyond doubt”; that RAK Mason, so personally immersed in what he wrote, had declared, ” ‘Who touches this book touches a man.’ Well, when I take up a book I don’t quite want to touch a man.” Or that “Robin Hyde, the silly bitch” was about “to tear Verse Alive to pieces in the Observer” while of her own poems, “Each is a sort of orgasm in three stanzas. I wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t so obviously masturbatory orgasms.” He finds her Passport to Hell “an obscene book… Starkie may be quite a decent fellow. She has turned him into an animal and I found her sentimental caressing of this animal revolting. And the bad prose!”

Glover himself becomes “Darling Denis, me old farting faggot”. King, I feel, has allowed treasure to remain concealed in not making use of such things. He tells us that Eric McCormick and Sargeson had periodic tiffs and reconciliations but not that McCormick once broke off their friendship because of Sargeson’s open offensiveness to a Jew. We are told that a well-off lesbian friend was generous and occasionally a trial ‑ not that she fell troublesomely in love with him and that he saw her, in rather Joycean vein, as an easy touch who will “come to light with a tenner”. The relationship with Frame was far more of a trial, and far more turbulent, although not a whit less involved with kindness and real affection, than King allows us to see.

I don’t believe Sargeson would in the least be diminished by a more vivid presentation of what, after all, the biography itself declares were traits he did not conceal from those who knew him well. For all the strengths King has as a biographer, and the qualities the Life must surely and properly be admired for, I feel there was a rather different Sargeson, a funnier one and a meaner one than these pages let loose. I like to think that before too long we may have a broad selection of Sargeson’s letters to put the ledger right. Not that even then, of course, the old artificer would allow us ever to presume that the picture we held was anything but an approximate likeness.

Vincent O’Sullivan is Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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