Without guilt or apology, Harry Ricketts

Tread Softly For You Tread On My Life: New & Collected Writings
Michael King
Cape Catley, $34.95,
ISBN 0908561881

“This is the sort of letter that doesn’t look well in a Biography,” Rupert Brooke wrote Eddie Marsh in September 1913. Brooke had been wondering whether marriage might be the solution to his complicated love-life, and rather cold-bloodedly weighing up the pros and cons of marrying the actress Cathleen Nesbitt. The loyal and besotted Marsh duly omitted any reference to the letter when he published his 1918 memoir of Brooke, and, as far as I know, the myth-denting material (along with far juicier revelations) didn’t appear in print until Paul Delany’s compelling study, The Neo-Pagans: Rupert Brooke and the Ordeal of Youth, in 1987.

I mention this little Brooke anecdote because it bears on the biographical territory Michael King stakes out for himself in the opening talks and essays of Tread Softly For You Tread On My Life, particularly in the first piece, “Biography and Compassionate Truth”. What King is concerned with here, even anxious about, is the role of morality in biography. Should the “ethical biographer” (his own phrase) tell all? Are there circumstances in which material should be withheld? If so, what circumstances? Do the same rules apply for dead as for living subjects? What are the rules anyway?

As far as the dead go, King’s code of conduct initially seems self-explanatory: “almost everything known about a biographee’s life”, providing it helps to illuminate their character and/or set them in their times “is justifiable grist to the biographer’s mill”. Exactly the stance, in fact, you’d expect from an eminent historian, whose position on historical representation is spelt out later in the collection in “Allegiance to One’s Origins: The Consequences of Belief”:

The only healthy way to deal with the past, and to understand it, is to have all the relevant incidents and episodes on the table and to be even-handed in the manner in which we deal with them.

 

So, in the biographical sphere, are there occasions when that “even-handed manner” means you should leave things out? Yes, says King, when the evidence for a particular incident or character trait is suspect. Fair enough. But,
for him, it also means withholding material “relating to sexual behaviour”. When writing his life of the homosexual Sargeson, King says he followed the David Marr rule: “as far as the bedroom but not as far as the bed”. As a biographer, this puts King in a line of descent from discreet Eddie Marsh as opposed to gossipy Lytton Strachey, who famously declared that “Discretion is not the better part of biography.” Which would be fine, except that, in a distinctly un-Marshlike aside, King then can’t resist telling us that “by chance” he does actually know “what kind of sexual acts Sargeson liked and disliked” – but that it’s none of our business. The objection to this is that while it’s fine to keep silent, there’s something altogether too self-regarding about flaunting your silence. On the “bed” question, personally I’m with Auden, who thought that, where known, biographies of homosexuals should register their subjects’ preferences.

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What about living subjects? Here King’s rules are necessarily less straightforward, but can be encapsulated in a phrase of his, which Marsh would have warmed to: “compassionate truth”. For all King’s claims that “[t]he objects of biography in this instance do not change”, and his obvious sincerity about owing the living “respect in addition to truth”, I can’t help thinking that once “compassionate truth” is accepted as the benchmark, it becomes hard to distinguish the “ethical biographer” from the “pragmatic biographer”. As King himself says, having “regard for the sensibilities of living people, including the biographee  … conditions what evidence is cited and how it is cited, and what conclusions are reached and how they are expressed.” Which nudges us pretty close to the shelf marked “Ghosted Lives”.

I wonder, too, whether this code of “compassionate truth” is not, at least in part, a kind of retrospective rationalisation of the constraints under which King agreed to write his recent life of Janet Frame. His Author’s Note to Wrestling with the Angel states two of these restrictions:

Janet Frame agreed to cooperate with the writing of this book but expressed two preferences: that it not be a critical biography (an analysis of her writing); and that I do not quote verbatim from my interviews with her. I have complied with both requests.

 

(As a literary biographer myself, King’s agreement to the first of these “preferences” frankly boggles me, but let that pass.) Now, in the second piece in this collection, “The Road to Oamaru”, he is more forthcoming. Here we learn that Frame annotated batches of draft chapters as King finished them, and that he modified or removed episodes which she considered “too raw or intensely private to permit publication”. King demurs at the idea that complying with these “requests” and “preferences” makes the book “an ‘authorised’ biography”, preferring to call it one “written in consultation with its subject”. But while no one would accuse him of doing anything less than a scrupulous and highly professional job, looking back now, it must also be more congenial for King to see his compliance as framed by “compassionate truth”, rather than as just “Framed”.

That said, I was fascinated by the parts of “The Road to Oamaru”, in which King describes the zigzag path that led to him becoming Frame’s biographer. It was apparently reading Quentin Bell’s life of Virginia Woolf and Michael Holroyd’s life of Lytton Strachey in the mid-1970s, which first turned on the light, showing him that literary biography “offered more real and more substantial possibilities for investigating the vasty depths of the human psyche than the lives of non-literary subjects.” Not long afterwards, Tony Vogt suggested Frame as just the subject for King; but, at the time, he had his heart set on doing Baxter, until he found the dead poet had already been bagged by Frank McKay. And so, via various impressive projects, not least of course the life of Sargeson, we come to the moment in 1995 when, with considerable trepidation, King finally popped the question, and Frame said yes.

“The Road to Oamaru” also contains the bonus of two snippets of Frame’s light verse. Of these, her witty parody of some once-celebrated lines by the 19th-century poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy (not O’Shaughessy, pace King) is terrific:

We are the front-end loaders
we are the movers of earth
wheel-deep in drainage odours
assisting at bungalow’s birth
we are the grim foreboders
of a world without trees or mirth –

 

This side of Frame – in fact, her poetry generally – should be better known. King’s own literary playfulness mostly appears in the collection in some of the titles. The volume’s rather pussy-footing title (Tread Softly For You Tread On My Life) is an adaptation of Yeats’s “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” – a line older readers may remember was also once used as the slogan for a carpet ad. While, from the more popular end of the scale, “There’s A Fraction Too Much Fiction” nods to the Tim Finn song, and “The Strange Story of Reuel Anson Lochore” (one of three excellent mini-lives included here) fittingly evokes, amongst other generic echoes, “The Strange Story of Jonathan Small”, chapter 12 of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four.

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“There’s A Fraction Too Much Fiction” is one of nine pieces – most of the rest of the collection – which feature King as historian. In these, he re-addresses some of the harder (ie, more sensitive) issues involving past and present Maori/Pakeha relations. His general position could perhaps be described as the historian’s equivalent of “tough love”, and seems to me entirely admirable. Here he is in “A Vision for the New Millennium”, talking good sense about what is required for our future “social harmony and national stability”:

The position we must grow towards – is one of a mutuality of respect between the two major cultures. Neither side has the right to say, “I insist that you value my culture but I retain the right to revile and demean yours.” That is simply a recipe for the kind of unrelenting conflict and grief that has characterised the Balkans and Northern Ireland.

 

In “Allegiance to One’s Origins: the Consequences of Belief” (an elaboration of aspects of “A Vision”), he further expatiates on the need for Pakeha, without guilt or apology, to feel positive about their own, now indigenous, culture. (Culture, King usefully glosses, as “in the end, the sum total of what people do to enable themselves to cope with reality.”)

Central to this affirmation, for King, is the necessity for Pakeha to acknowledge their “identification with this land”. In “A Vision”, he recalls Doug Graham once saying that “Maori had spiritual feelings for lakes and mountains and rivers that Pakeha people neither shared nor understood.” King, rightly, will have none of this, laying claim to the emergence of an analogous Pakeha spirituality:

Such a feeling among Pakeha people is now widely shared; and, as our Pakeha culture puts down even deeper roots into the soil of this country, and as those roots become more hallowed by the passage of time, those feelings will become common and more intense.

 

As Tread Softly as a whole reminds us, King himself has, for three decades, been an important player in trying to adjust such imbalances of perception. The earliest piece, placed at the end of the collection, is his 1978 essay, “Maori Oral History: Some Cultural and Methodological Considerations”. This has been put last, I imagine, to point up some of the major cultural and perceptual shifts which have occurred during the intervening period, as well as the major shift in King’s own career from Maori historian to literary biographer. Back in the late 1970s, he could justifiably see himself as a, perhaps the, emerging historian and biographer of Maori. As such, he could, without guilt or apology, ask whether it was “easier for a Maori than for a Pakeha to write ‘Maori history’, particularly a Maori from the tribe or family concerned”. Furthermore, he could give the answer that a knowledgeable and trusted Pakeha might well be the more suitable historian “because he is not as bound by Maori expectations”, and thus not “subject to what might be called ‘Maori consequences’ for such things as not upholding mana or encroaching on matters regarded as tapu.” Twenty-three years later, even to ask such a question would be condemned as the height of cultural insensitivity.

We should be grateful to King the historian for continuing, in Curnowesque phrase, to “look, and look back harder”, as he picks his way through these cultural minefields. In this area at least, his brand of sympathetic even-handedness (if not “compassionate truth”) may hold the key to a way forward.

 

Harry Ricketts is currently working on Strange Meetings, a composite biography of a dozen World War 1 poets. He is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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