‘And what happened next?’ Our stories, Nelson Wattie

Dove on the Waters
Maurice Shadbolt
David Ling Publishing, $39.95,
ISBN 0 908990 40 5

In 1959, having just left a provincial home town and moved to the astonishingly big city of Auckland, I was busy trying out various ways to be a New Zealander. I had my first underage pub beers (unthinkable in my father’s surroundings) and met up with an extraordinary range of characters: people who lived in gracious Remuera houses and ate cake with a fork, people who lived in unswept flats in Parnell (not what it is today) and — if they managed to get out of bed — ate fish and chips with their fingers, musicians in Mount Eden, gardeners in Henderson, readers of foreign languages in Queen’s Arcade, puritanical christians and members of that wicked body, the Rationalist Association, people of various ethnic and social backgrounds, would-be intellectuals, would-be artists and simple souls happy to be just what they were. How could a young student not be fascinated by the varieties of human existence? Who would ever have thought, living in Napier, that such people could all be New Zealanders?

In that very year Maurice Shadbolt published The New Zealanders: A Sequence of Stories. The same fascination attached to it as to the crowds bustling along Queen street on a Friday night: a mass of colourful individuals, all recognisably New Zealanders yet all quite different from each other. Trembling with new-found awareness of the range of human possibilities within our islands, I was excited and full of admiration. I lent the book to my brother. He found the mass of characters confusing rather than enriching and wondered why the book should have the name it did: these creatures did not seem like any New Zealanders he had ever met.

This difference in response probably had more than one cause. A personal one might be the desire of a medical student to put down his arty-farty brother. There was also the fact that I had made my excursions into New Zealandness on the author’s home territory of Auckland while my brother’s Dunedin experiences had brought him up against quite different possibilities. Should the book have been called The Aucklanders?

But a more significant reason may be the nature of the project itself. Shadbolt had set out to put New Zealand (the social, not the natural one, the pakeha, not the Maori one) between the covers of a book. He seems to have gone on trying to do that with every subsequent book as well.

He once said that he has not always enjoyed being a writer but has always enjoyed being a New Zealander. His project has, perhaps, more to do with ethnicity, nationality, defining a place in the world, than with literature. For him, writing is a means rather than an end.

2

Perhaps my response was less mature than my brother’s. At that time I was an adolescent, exploring a varied world in Auckland, trying to define it and myself; now, almost 40 years later, Shadbolt’s book seems much more limited than it did then. In its time it hit a chord (it was immensely popular) but today its purpose to reveal a nation through representatives seems both less worthy and less possible of fulfilment. Yet the author has never abandoned his project and would probably be angry to be told that it is an adolescent one. For that is not quite what he meant when he wrote (in the “Author’s Afterword” to Figures in Light: Selected Stories, 1978): “Flight into adolescence and childhood would indeed seem a characteristic privilege of the New Zealand artist, if this country’s writing is indication, from Katherine Mansfield onward.”

Of course neither he nor his readers can escape the nature of storytelling, the nature of fiction. It is not all New Zealand that is caught in his books but the author’s shaped images, things made rather than perceived, even when the materials of which they are made are his perceptions. They succeed, when they do, as well-crafted images and fail, when they do, as insufficiently individualised creations. Meanwhile New Zealanders, in all their variety, go on busily being themselves, living and changing, no matter what the author does. They refuse to be defined by him or even adequately represented by his words; indeed they don’t bother to refuse; they have other agendas, indifferent to his.

For his faithful readers there is still something of a thrill to see Shadbolt’s name on the cover of an unread book — an anticipation of pleasure, arising from a memory of past enjoyment. Its source is not, as the adolescent once mistakenly thought, that one likes to recognise the world in the pages of a book, but rather that a genuine storytelling talent can always fascinate.

Shadbolt has that talent in abundance. From childhood to old age, we enjoy a good yarn well told; we love to ask “and what happened next?” and to be told, bit by bit, what did. And when it’s all over and somehow wrapped up, we have a sense of satisfaction that the incompleteness of life fails to give us. When my grandfather had reached the end of a story I sometimes asked, “and what happened next?” — “Then the band struck up,” he said. A signal is given that it is all over and we must return to the less firmly shaped, ongoing movement of “real” life. (Perhaps it is literature that creates reality.)

Over the years, however, the anticipation of enjoyment may have become a bit dampened by some less satisfying experiences with Shadbolt’s books. The good news is that Dove on the Waves is a return to the best manner of his early story-telling with the added pleasure of deeper complexity derived from the interdependence of a number of stories, each of them consequently deeper in meaning than it might have been by itself.

This was obviously the intention of The New Zealanders, as the word “sequence” in the subtitle suggests, but those stories remained obstinately separate. It was achieved in a different way by the many stories-in-one of the long novel The Lovelock Version (1980). However, there was a retrogression in the very long stories, unwoven with others, of the land wars trilogy, books some of us find rather hard going. One of Ben’s (1995), called an autobiography, brought welcome relief, with its mass of characters and their stories bound by the flow of the narrative voice, and this very technique has now been applied to fiction in Dove.

The relationship between these last two books is paradoxical: the strength of the autobiography lies in its shape, which is like that of fiction, while the “novel” tends to suggest that its narrator is none other than the author himself. What matters, of course, is that both books offer a “good read”, the satisfaction, again, of stories well spun. Both of them also, and all too obviously, are yet further attempts to shape a nation in words. The stories are fine, but the nation and the words remain elusive, beyond the author’s grasp.

3

It seems that Shadbolt has never quite learned the lesson that often has to be driven home to literature students by a variety of means: even though subject-matter can never be trivial, what makes a novel or story valuable is not what it says but how it says it, not its topics or “themes” but the creative gesture of its making.

How else can a ghastly topic like that of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” be such a satisfying and enriching reading experience? Or conversely, why is a profoundly moving human situation and significant historical event like Te Kooti’s attack on Matawhero less than satisfying and enriching when Shadbolt tackles it in Season of the Jew (or Ihimaera in The Matriarch)? Those who complain of the dreariness of New Zealand literature (yes, there are many such complainants) usually go on to say that the reason must be the “boring” quality of New Zealand life. Shadbolt knows that that is not the case — he is excited by New Zealand experience and has found and invented many exciting events to describe; it can be exciting for readers to share them, too. The human life on these islands is as varied as their landscapes. If our fiction is dreary or boring, that can only be due to the manner of its telling.

Shadbolt’s manner of telling is notoriously not that of Frank Sargeson. Notoriously in part because of a letter written to the New Zealand Listener in 1955 pointing out that Shadbolt’s stories are “unsubtle” while Sargeson’s are characterised by “brilliant compression”. The letter was written by “K”, who was not C K Stead, he assured Stephen Stratford, but was nonetheless a “young acolyte who had functioned as [Sargeson’s] message boy,” according to Shadbolt. (This point is followed to a non-conclusion, in Lawrence Jones’s essay in Ending the Silences: Critical Essays on Maurice Shadbolt, ed Ralph Crane, Hodder Moa Beckett, 1995.)

Who wrote the letter is less interesting than the way its echoes have pursued Shadbolt through his career. While he has achieved some popular success both at home and abroad, most local professionals have always maintained that he lacks “brilliant compression”. Indeed he does — it is not a very clever insight — since compact style is not even aimed at by the teller of tales and spinner of yarns, the sort of writer Shadbolt happens to be. Neither are a wealth of interweaving stories, “unsubtle” but enthusiastic characters, colourful settings, an abundance of warm life, a broad social canvas, a devotion to history and its explanations of the present, clumsy but vital heterosexual encounters, people with a sense of adventure, warm and fuzzy extended families and shoulder-slapping masculinity characteristic of Sargeson.

4

It can hardly be surprising that Shadbolt has little resemblance to the hermit of Takapuna, since from the very beginning he set out to to be different from him and his “acolytes”. “I began writing the kind of stories I wanted to read, simply because no one else was writing them,” he said. The complaint that he is not Sargeson is merely an “unsubtle” suggestion that every New Zealand writer should be.

In fact this is a view still widely held and when Shadbolt was beginning his career it was almost universal. Michael King rightly calls a chapter of his Sargeson biography “Sons of Sargeson” — but, of course, there is no place for Shadbolt among them. He is of a different kind and the fact that writers are different from each other is surely a cause for celebration rather than scorn. It took some courage to be different from the talented mob of “Sons” and that deserves to be celebrated too.

Tight plots pursued with iron discipline, a Flaubertian filing of sentence and phrase, an ironic balance of force against force, as in Thomas Mann — these are not features of Shadbolt’s writing. But should they be? In the Ralph Crane book quoted above, Alan Riach astutely aligns Shadbolt with Sir Walter Scott, “a wordy big tumphy”, and implies that Shadbolt, like Scott, “is always looking for another tale to unbutton.” There are plenty of wonderful writers on the world stage who are wordy and generously abundant in their tales — V S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey are three of them in the post-colonial world and none of them resembles Frank Sargeson. Admittedly, Shadbolt might pale a little in such company, but it is the company he has a right to be seen in.

The strengths of his most populous novels — Strangers and Journeys (1972), The Lovelock Version (1980) and even the much maligned but hypnotic An Ear of the Dragon (1971) — are something like the strengths of those three writers and perhaps he shares some of their weaknesses too. These novels are an astonishing achievement in the space of a decade which also saw two books of a different kind appear, A Touch of Clay and Danger Zone (both 1974). If we recall that the next decade saw the land wars trilogy, with its wealth of historical tales, it seems churlish to ask for “brilliant compression” — a bit like asking Wagner to be Philip Glass.

Of course, big is not necessarily beautiful and the flood of Shadbolt tales might threaten to set us awash.

More seriously, Shadbolt shares with Scott, Rushdie and others the urge to make his abundance seem like an image of the totality. Each book is to be a microcosm, or at least a micro-New Zealand. And here, it seems to me, he is defeated by the greater abundance of reality itself.

The population of a country is greater than that of a novel; but Shadbolt, like others of his kind, tries to overcome that disadvantage by making his characters “representative”. The more representative they become the more we are asked to nod our heads in agreement and the smaller the demands on our imagination. We are not asked to picture the life of another and grasp that other’s response to experiences unfamiliar to us. Rather, we are called on to recognise and acknowledge the familiar. So strong is this call on the reader that those who fail to answer it can feel frustrated, angry or even guilty.

It seems that some readers do vigorously reject these texts. If you feel that Shadbolt’s image of the New Zealander coincides or at least overlaps with yours, you are likely to respond to his novels with some warm fuzzies but if you don’t you are likely to throw them in the corner. Both responses seem to have only a tenuous connection with whatever “literature” is and the question of whether even the best of Shadbolt is “literature” is a fair one. However, I am reminded at this point in the argument of Douglas Lilburn, responding to the first startled criticisms of his electronic works by saying that if you don’t want to call it “music” you are welcome to call it something else. That won’t affect its value in any way. If we deny the word “literature” to Shadbolt’s books it won’t make much difference: the books will still be there and will go on doing whatever it is they do.

5

The tendency to create types rather than fully rounded individuals has been much discussed by Shadbolt’s critics. In Landfall 34 (March 1980) Ruth Harley felt that the characters were “overburdened by the weight of ‘meaning’ they are required to bear” but others have found this meaningfulness a strength rather than a weakness.

Why this question keeps coming up with Shadbolt and not, say, with Maurice Gee is an interesting problem — and not one readily solved. The characters of the “Plumb” trilogy represent all sorts of forces in society and politics but no-one seems to have found that this lessens their authenticity. I suggest (but would be hard pushed to prove it) that this is because they are both representative and highly individual, even quirky. Shadbolt’s most successful characters — in Strangers and Journeys — are also both representative and individual, while his least successful ones — in Season of the Jew — are almost as purely representative and posterlike as the creatures of socialist realism. We still remember the bold sweeping lines and blank surfaces of colour that characterised the heroic paintings of Soviet ploughmen and factory workers, while the “real” peasants of Russia were buried under the stresses of poverty. Some of Shadbolt’s characters are as crudely drawn as that.

But again, it is unfair to condemn Maurice Shadbolt by comparing him with Jane Austen, the sweeping gesture with the pin-pointing miniature. He is not writing her or Sargeson’s or a hundred other novelists’ novels but his own.

This talk of character and “meaning” emphasises the vertical dimension. But there is also the horizontal one, the strength of adventure stories and romances, the line that pulls readers on and on while they ask: “And what happened next?”

Northrup Frye once remarked that at any point in a narrative you can ask one of two questions: “What does this mean?” and “Where is this heading”. It is difficult to ask them both at once. When we ask the first of Shadbolt we are likely to be unsatisfied. Paradoxically, however, he seems to insist that we ask it by trying to suggest that his “meaning” is to portray the whole of his country and that this act of social definition is more worthwhile than anything else. If we take him too seriously on that we will indeed feel that characters, landscapes and all other things are “overburdened”. But if we ask the second question we are likely to be delighted and want to go on and on through long, time-consuming books, forgetting the passing of time in our lives for the sake of the time in the fiction. Shadbolt tries very hard to create “meaning” but the very strain of doing so seems to weigh his tales down. The horizontal pull through events seems, on the other hand, to happen by itself, without great effort on his part. Consequently our attention is not drawn to it — and yet it is his greatest strength.

And then there is his sense of humour. At its light-hearted best it can be enjoyed in The Lovelock Version. The ironic tension between the dreams of people and the actuality of their lives is especially strong in colonial New Zealand. Only the strongest dreams could give people the courage to travel so far but the harshness of pioneer life was remote from the dreamed-of “better Britain”. The resulting disappointment could be presented as tragedy but the gap between ideals and reality is also the source of the best comedy — Fielding makes much of it in those famous prefaces to Tom Jones. Shadbolt exploits it for excellent entertainment in The Lovelock Version but uses it less appropriately and very heavy-handedly (I know some will disagree) in the land wars trilogy.

6

It will be clear by now that my own view of Shadbolt’s fiction is ambivalent.

I have said nothing of the clumsiness of style or the pseudo-Victorian dialogue of the historical books (leaving out the object of a transitive verb is not enough to make a sentence amusing and no Victorian Fairweather would have made such a habit of it). The question of broadly painted types who could easily (but never quite do) slide into stereotypes is an even more troubling matter.

On the other hand it is typical of the teller of tales. Scott’s characters are like that too — and Barry Crump’s really do slide into stereotype. Ready identification with a familiar type eases the reader’s change of concentration from character to hypnotic event. The pleasures associated with this kind of reading can be underestimated, especially by those with a top-heavy literary training. I like to indulge such pleasures and I always feel a little thrill of anticipation when I open a new Shadbolt book.

Recently Maurice Shadbolt’s friends and admirers have been saddened to learn of the unhaltable illness encroaching on his mind and impressed by the human courage which lets him speak publicly of it. Only he and those who are personally close to him can know if we can expect more books from him. If Dove should prove to be his last, it will be a fitting conclusion to his work, returning as it does to the most enjoyable of his skills.

These skills include the ability to shape a satisfying tale and the tone of the narrator’s “voice”. There are three tales here — although with typical generosity Shadbolt weaves sub-plots into them, suggesting tale upon tale — and each of them is both entertaining and moving. What binds them is the permanence of love, which holds the characters gripped through misadventure, long separation and longed-for reunions. The three tales are told by the old and vital Great-aunt Alice to the youngish male narrator and passed on from him to us. As a result these love-tales, strong in themselves, are given an extra glow by the love of the narrator for his wonderful old relative. His “voice” as he tells the tale is warmed by that love, and it would be a hard-hearted reader who could not respond to that warmth.

The attempt to put New Zealand into a book persists here as well. A Shadbolt novel would be unthinkable without it. The publisher’s blurb claims that “an idiosyncratic history of New Zealand unfolds”. I remain sceptical of this impossible task, and prefer to enjoy the tales as something both smaller and greater than this. But this book would make it clear if it were not clear already that Shadbolt’s quixotic effort to fill a book with New Zealand and New Zealand with a book arises from the finest of human motives — a warm and unselfish love for its object.

Nelson Wattie is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature and president of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

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