Less than kind, Elizabeth Webby

Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers
C K Stead
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1869402723

When invited to review this new collection of critical essays by C K Stead, I initially demurred on the grounds of my lack of familiarity with contemporary New Zealand writing. I was advised that this would not be a problem, something confirmed by a glance at the contents pages of Kin of Place when it arrived. Of Stead’s 20 authors, only Elizabeth Knox was born in the second half of the 20th century. Half of his 28 essays had already been collected in In the Glass Case (1981), with the earliest dating back to 1959. Five others had previously appeared in Answering to the Language (1989), leaving nine new or partly new items written during 2001.

The new material, like the old, is a mix of reviews and essays, though it does include some published here for the first time, as well as some that extend earlier pieces. Into the latter category fall essays on Allen Curnow, Lauris Edmond and Ian Wedde; essays on Frank Sargeson, Kendrick Smithyman and Elizabeth Knox are entirely new. Recent reviews of a novel by Maurice Gee and of Michael King’s biography of Janet Frame, together with an essay on Frame’s poetry, make up the rest of the previously uncollected material.

The percentage of new to old is not immediately apparent from the contents pages since Stead has chosen to organise his material according to the dates of his writers rather than of the essays themselves. So Kin of Place opens with three essays on Katherine Mansfield and ends with the one on Elizabeth Knox. In between we get pretty much the acknowledged New Zealand literary canon; Curnow and Frame also score three essays, Sargeson and Baxter two each. Only six of the chosen 20 writers are women, only two are Maori. So? Does a writer’s gender or race bear any necessary relation to the quality and significance of their work? Whatever their views on that question, most people who know anything about New Zealand literature might be surprised to find Hubert Witheford chosen as one of Stead’s kin of place in preference to, say, Patricia Grace. Those who know anything about C K Stead’s critical preferences might not, though the question remains as to why he has chosen to reprint a piece on Witheford rather than others from In the Glass Case which dealt with Charles Brasch, Denis Glover, Fleur Adcock and David Mitchell.

Stead makes no attempt to justify his selection in his Introduction, beyond claiming that each of his 20 writers has produced work that “has been, is, or may be expected to be, of some literary-historical significance.” Thereby, of course, carefully covering himself from any inference that the work of these writers is in any way equal in value.  Nor does he make any attempt to explain his title. Only when one is more than half-way through the collection does it become obvious that this is a self-quotation, the title of a poem written for Kendrick Smithyman and referring to the fact that he and Stead “had ‘up North’ in common.” As the essay on Smithyman makes clear, they shared little else.  It is, indeed, so equivocal about the value of Smithyman’s work that one wonders why it was written. Surely not just to explain the title of the collection?

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Elsewhere, Stead has been critical of the tendency to be kind to the recently dead. His 1966 review “A R D Fairburn: The Argument Against” was written, as he notes, “at the height of the post-mortem Fairburn adulation” and accordingly seen as highly provocative, though now “the consensus has settled into an acceptance that Fairburn was never quite the literary giant his contemporaries took him for.” Another of the new essays, “Lauris Edmond”, while the only piece where the writer’s name stands alone as title – lacking even the dates of birth and death that grace the new essay on Allen Curnow – seems intended to repeat the Fairburn manoeuvre. It begins with a very negative analysis of Edmond’s poem “The Lecture”, originally part of his 1988 essay, “The New Victorians”, where Stead attacked the literary manifestations of what would later come to be called “political correctness”.  It ends with a resounding call to arms:

Does literature matter? Lauris Edmond believed so – or at least said she did; and so do I. I say there is a point at which the serious mind, the mind of the person for whom literature matters, simply rebels. Enough of this clubby stuff! It is time to look hard at the words on the page.

 

This final questioning of Edmond’s veracity is typical of the essay; throughout it, Stead plays on a line from “The Lecture”: “I shall tell them lies”. His analysis of the poem, he notes, resulted from a decision, in a critical climate he saw as overly protective of women writers, “to write about an Edmond poem exactly as I would write about it if it were written by a male.” But this is exactly what he does not do; his reading of “The Lecture” depends entirely on the assumptions that the “I” of the poem is Lauris Edmond herself and that she is attempting to give a truthful account of a personal experience. According to this reading, “The Lecture” is a failure; Stead is highly critical of Edmond’s hypocrisy and her “false voice”. But what if the author of the poem had really been a man?  Would Stead still have been so ready to identify poet with persona in such a literal way? There seems to me nothing in “the words on the page” to prevent one interpreting the “I” of “The Lecture” as a man rather than a woman. In this reading, the “false voice” is intentional, in the way that it is in Mansfield’s “Je ne parle pas français”. Where it is impossible to make a purely autobiographical reading of an Edmond poem, as with “Going to Moscow”, Stead is prepared to concede her “total success”:

It is also a poem that makes me think she could have learned much more from literature if she had not made such a defensive fetish of insisting that it was “real life” and not book learning that mattered most in the making of poetry.

 

While Edmond may well have been guilty at times of taking such an extremely black-and-white view, Stead has his own blind spots when it comes to literature and “real life”.  Near the beginning of his essay on Elizabeth Knox’s recent novel Black Oxen he notes:

I had declined to read her best selling The Vintner’s Luck because I knew it was a book which required one to accept the “reality” of an angel – one so physical and un-numinous that he has sex organs (and uses them) and “real” wings . . . believing it beyond my powers to like such a book or to feel other than irritated by such a use of an indisputable talent.

 

It is obvious from this that Stead thinks certain subjects and genres cannot be taken seriously and so should not be attempted by any writer of “indisputable talent”. Novels that require readers to believe in events and characters that are not part of our normal, rational world annoy him. Here, I think, we see the reason why Stead has never written in any extended way about Janet Frame’s fiction and why his reading of Keri Hulme’s the bone people is so negative. The first third of his review for the Melbourne Age of Frame’s greatest novel, Living in the Maniototo, is devoted to a potted history of Frame’s career, not forgetting the “barbarous” shock treatment, the remainder more or less to retelling the story of the novel. In his recent review of Michael King’s biography of Frame, for the Scotsman, Stead again repeats the “barbarous” comment, offering his own view of Frame’s life and fiction at the expense of King’s. To say, “Her taxonomy of the human species recognizes two sub-groups, the strong, healthy and happy who are unlovely, and the rest who are their victims”, is to seriously underestimate Frame’s work, especially her later novels. Certainly, there is nothing in this review of the highly practical older Frame, learning to drive, using computers, frequently moving house, who was for me the real discovery of King’s book.

Stead’s criticism of the bone people as having “a bitter after-taste, something black and negative deeply ingrained in its imaginative fabric” likewise seems to result from his inability to respond to the “magic” elements of the novel as strongly as to the “reality” of its scenes of child beating. A critic who cannot accept a “real” angel is unlikely to tolerate the overcoming of death, and the rebirth of each of the three main characters, which are central to the plot of the bone people and responsible for the positive note on which it ends. The fantasy elements of Black Oxen also cause Stead some disquiet but he is prepared to see it as ultimately an “affirmative work”. The comparison of Knox and Frame which precedes this evaluation is particularly interesting in suggesting that, whatever Frame, her doctors or her biographer may say about her mental state, for Stead she remains “damaged goods”:

Knox’s distinction as a writer lies, as Janet Frame’s does, in her use of the language; but she has the advantage (and I do think it an advantage) of a positive, energetic temperament which has not been curbed, damaged and frightened out of life, or out of its wits, by the hammer blows of misfortune.

 

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Of the new pieces in this collection, only the review of Maurice Gee’s Ellie and the Shadow Man seems to display Stead’s old ability to go beyond the specific text under discussion to make some telling comments on an author’s work as a whole. The early essays on Mansfield remain excellent introductions to her work, as do the essays on Curnow, Baxter and Duggan to theirs. I well remember the eagerness with which I fell on In the Glass Case in the early 1980s, a time when there was little critical material available on New Zealand literature – no Oxford History, no Companion, virtually nothing to help teachers and students, especially those outside New Zealand itself.  Twenty-one years later, Kin of Place appears in a very different literary climate, one Stead laments at the end of his Introduction, seeing the “book world in danger of becoming only another branch of commerce”. At least in New Zealand it is still possible to get a 400-page collection of literary criticism – most of it far from new – published, something now impossible in Australia, except at the author’s expense.

 

Elizabeth Webby is Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney.

 

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Posted in Essays, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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