Cracks in the world, Kathryn Walls

Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life
Tessa Duder
HarperCollins, $39.95,
ISBN 1869504852

Margaret Mahy’s 1995 novel The Other Side of Silence presents itself as the autobiography of its female hero (whose name, too, is “Hero”). At the end, however, the first person is adopted by a new anonymous author figure, and Hero becomes a character in someone else’s text. She is described consigning the book she has been writing (the very book we have, until now, been reading) to the flames of her family’s wood-burner. Hero destroys her book because she is afraid of personal publicity. Her mother, an ambitious academic, has published her own book about Hero’s intellectually gifted elder sister Ginevra. The latter’s consequent fame has proved a serious stumbling block not only for Ginevra herself (she has ended up crashing cars in an Australian stunt show), but also for Hero (who has tried to make an impact by becoming an elective mute). The paradox, of course, is that despite the (fictional) fact that Hero’s autobiography is quite indubitably destroyed, its text nevertheless survives as all but the last five pages of Mahy’s novel. Mahy’s purpose is not hard to discern. Her story justifies her long-standing refusal to expose her family life to public view, even while it acknowledges that – as she has so often insisted – fiction may be the vehicle of “truth”, and perhaps even biographical truth.

If Mahy, like Hero, has decided that one’s only confidant should be (as in the fairytale of “The Goose Girl”) “the old stove in the corner”, what chance is there for the would-be biographer? One is not surprised to find Tessa Duder explaining that Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life is not a biography as such, but a “literary life”. Although I do of course respect Mahy’s reticence (and appreciate Duder’s difficulties), I was not particularly attracted by the prospect of reading what promised to be a “life” without a life. But Duder’s treatment proved thoroughly absorbing.

Chief among the reasons for the book’s success is the fact that, for all her reluctance to talk about her relations and relationships, Mahy has always been willing to discuss her work – and Duder makes extensive use of a large number of interviews and published essays (many of which originated as addresses to writers, educationalists, librarians and so forth). She has also unearthed some previously unpublished items, and must be commended for that, especially if it meant tackling the usual discouraging-looking cardboard boxes.

Although I had already encountered much of Duder’s material before, her often chronological contextualisation is illuminating. One can see, for instance, how often Mahy’s lectures resonate with the novels she was writing at the time. In her 1991 address “Surprising Moments”, Mahy describes stories as the means by which we extricate ourselves from disastrous predicaments, from what she calls “cracks in the world”. In the fantasy novel Dangerous Spaces, published in the same year, Mahy tells the story of Anthea, who has been traumatised by the accidental death of both her parents. Her depression, her inclination towards suicide, is embodied by her habitual retreats through a “crack in the world” into an alternative “reality” – a “dangerous space”. (It would be so interesting to know whether the notion of the “crack” originated with the lecture or the novel.) Mahy’s discursive contributions are not, I now realise, “background” material, floating free of a definitely-dated “opus”; they are an intrinsic part of that opus.

If Mahy enters this “literary life” through her own (highly individual) reflections on her art, these reflections do sometimes contain fragments of biography, and Duder has supplemented these. They are almost always suggestive. The beautiful letter written by Mahy’s maternal grandfather on the day she was born (“Dear Little Margaret May/I am informed that you happily arrived this afternoon ”) alerted me to the fact that, in The Catalogue of the Universe, the surname of the solo mother Dido and her daughter Angela is Mahy’s own second name. Suggesting that Mahy was, in a way, a natural feminist, Duder quotes her remark from a 1989 interview with the feminist Sue Kedgley to the effect that she “was always fascinated by women who dressed like men … . They had guns and swords which gave them power over life and death … .” This comment came into its own since the publication (six years later) of The Other Side of Silence, in which the frightening Miss Credence regularly dresses up in her dead father’s clothes and shoots the neighbourhood cats with his gun. The kitchen psychologist in me is tempted to interpret Miss Credence as a figure of Mahy herself or rather as a projection of her repressed shadow side. Tessa Duder’s photograph of Mahy’s lounge, which shows a black and white specimen in possession of the sofa, is a reminder of Mahy’s great affection for her cats. Alert students are going to have a ball with some of this material.

It is good, too, that when it comes to Mahy’s childhood, Duder has been able to trespass somewhat beyond the limits of “a literary life”. I had always realised that Mahy had been underestimated at primary school, but until reading part one (“The Young Philosopher – 1936 to 1958”) I had not taken in just how painful much of her childhood must have been:

“I once got the strap FIVE times, one after the other, for shrugging my shoulders. The funny thing was that I didn’t mean to be rude to the teacher.  My shrugging was like a sort of nervous twitch. I will never forget going back to my desk after the fourth strapping and feeling, with horror, my shoulders twitch again and hearing (also with horror) the teacher call me back out in front of the class to be strapped for the fifth time.”

 

And again:

“I used to play by myself, acting out adventure stories …. I would try to get other children to join in …. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t, and why I had problems with other children …. My parents tried to reassure me that I was rather an unusual person, and that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to be like other children when other children laughed at me and refused to play with me. That’s probably why I went through primary school in the lowest possible class, even though I read and wrote well.”

 

At the age of just eight, having been relocated for a time in a more advanced class (thanks to her mother’s intervention), Mahy was publicly dismissed from it during an arithmetic lesson. This sounds terrible enough, but the attitude of the teacher was quickly taken up by the class, who called out “You’re in with the babies.” One begins to wonder why Mahy’s isolation at school has not received greater emphasis in her various childhood reminiscences. These reminiscences are, however, dominated by her propensity for make-believe, which Mahy represents as a cause rather than an effect of her abuse:

“the only thing unusual about me was that I was given such a good opinion of myself that I chose to abide by it when there was a lot of suggestion that I should modify my behaviour … Imagination is a wonderful asset, but I do think most people … can learn to adapt and fit in.”

 

One wants the adult Mahy to claim some rights for her childish self as a genius, and to get angry. But Mahy never strikes out in self-defence. Criticised for the brilliantly parodic ending of A Lion in the Meadow, Mahy changed it (albeit interestingly). Accused of not being a properly “New Zealand” writer, she has become one. But if, as I am suggesting, Mahy has sought “to adapt and fit in”, she has managed to do so without sacrificing her artistic integrity. This is evident, I think, from her reflections on how she came to make The Changeover into her first “New Zealand novel”:

“I now think that all cities have both universal and particular characters, and I was able to use the universal form to begin nudging my way imaginatively back into the city I actually lived in, and then into a place from which I had been along with many other New Zealanders, unconsciously expelled.”

 

This may be adaptation, but it is not, thank goodness, capitulation. Reminded, however, of Mahy’s almost self-punishing altruism, I cannot help wondering whether (outside of her writing) she isn’t still trying to appease those little beasts of Whakatane Primary School, who loved to see the mighty brought low. As Duder writes:

Her generosity among writers is legendary, from offering the use of the central Christchurch apartment, to attending book awards armed with a heavy bag of short-listed copies for their authors to sign, paying her own fares to functions around New Zealand  to her … famous late night stamina (she is often the one who insists on paying any bill) … .

 

Even in her novels, whose youthful protagonists invariably overcome threats to their confidence, Mahy stresses the dangers of arrogance. Both Troy (The Haunting) and Laura (The Changeover) have to be warned against exploiting their supernatural powers in the service of, respectively, egotism and revenge.

While Duder’s strategy of weaving Mahy’s own material from a variety of sources into a continuous fabric works well, her incorporation in rather similar fashion of critical material (mostly from reviews) is a different matter. Too many assessments are quoted without supporting analysis, while Duder provides little of her own. And she tends to browbeat the reader by prefacing her quoted judgments with assertions of the status of their authors – as “influential”, an “authority”, and even “the Australian world authority”.

Duder’s introduction, however, is not at all self-effacing. Here Duder steps forward, as it were, to argue that Margaret Mahy is the archetypal prophet unrecognised in her own country. Mahy’s novels, she goes so far as to say, have been “shamefully neglected” here. But, ironically, Duder provides a huge amount of evidence to the contrary, not only with the long list of Mahy’s “Awards and Honours” that concludes the book, but even as she argues her supposed point. Read quickly, Duder’s statement that “With the exception of the Esther Glen Medal, which she has won six times since 1970, you will not see most of her great novels of the past 20 years included in New Zealand’s book awards” gives the impression that Mahy might indeed have been neglected here. But the fact remains that Margaret Mahy has been awarded the Esther Glen Medal a record number of times, and it emerges that she might well have won even more national awards if certain books had not been ineligible (presumably because they were published overseas, although this is nor explained). Duder seems at times to be casting Mahy in the mould of the embattled heroine of her own memorable Alex novels.

Duder’s perspective is reinforced by her sense of grievance over what she perceives to be the relatively low status in the literary world of writers for children and young people. I certainly share Duder’s broad convictions about the importance and interest of children’s writing, and I would have to acknowledge that there are some people out there who, probably because they equate accessibility with shallowness, are unable to give such writing its due. But I feel uneasy about Duder’s construction of writers as competitors.

A final point. The potential usefulness of Margaret Mahy: A Writer’s Life is seriously limited by endnotes that employ the largely outmoded op. cit. convention, rendering it virtually impossible for one to identify the source of a quotation or whatever after the first reference to the work in which it appears. (This would not matter nearly so much, of course, had Duder’s bibliography been properly inclusive.) Above all, however, what this book requires is an index, which would have allowed both scholar and general reader to revisit its informative contents quickly and easily.

 

Kathryn Walls teaches contemporary children’s literature in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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