Mentors and protégés, Margot Schwass

Mentors and protégés 

Editor and writer Margot Schwass looks at Frank Sargeson and his circle.

“[There] is a notion about that I am leading a little group that I train to write in words of one syllable,” complains a leading New Zealand writer. “Dear oh dear, those who know me know that I am insatiably interested in a wide variety of writing.” Another writer emphatically rejects that he is leading a school “where everyone sound[s] the same”. Young writers, he says, “have to find a voice that is theirs, and that’s their business and no one else’s”.

The first author is Frank Sargeson, writing to E H McCormick in 1945; the second Bill Manhire, speaking to Iain Sharp in 1991. Although nearly 50 years apart, the echoes are powerful. An established writer is read and admired by aspiring writers, his methods emulated. Willingly or not, he becomes a mentor and role model; he offers suggestions and support – and finds himself vilified for grooming a coterie of followers in his own image.

Conversations about mentors and their influence have a habit of turning into much bigger conversations about national literary identity, who gets to create, define and express it, and to what ends. In his 2003 essay, “The Baby Factory”, Patrick Evans suggested Manhire’s creative writing course at Victoria University was contributing to the steady homogenisation and commodification of New Zealand writing. Decades earlier, suspicions also surrounded Sargeson’s influence on the emerging writers who gathered around him, the so-called Sons of Sargeson (A P Gaskell, G R Gilbert, John Reece Cole, O E Middleton among them) and others. He has been accused of something larger and more sinister than mere mentoring: of somehow hijacking the whole New Zealand literary enterprise, of airbrushing it into imitative uniformity, of controlling admission to the national canon.

In the course of studying for a PhD, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the company of Sargeson and two writers with whom he was closely associated in the mid-1940s: Maurice Duggan and Greville Texidor, the well-travelled Englishwoman who emerged as a writer during her eight years in New Zealand and whose work Sargeson greatly admired. Delving into their correspondence and works-in-progress, I’ve been struck by both how fertile and how contemporary this three-cornered exchange seems. It anticipates literary relationships and structures we tend to think of as decidedly modern: at times, what was going on in post-war Takapuna looks very much like an informal, spontaneous, non-institutional version of today’s university-based creative writing workshops.

The emerging writers were often each other’s first readers. They sharpened their claws on one another’s drafts, or lavished them with praise. They recommended other writers and books, dissecting aspects of technique and execution. They unashamedly mined each other’s lives and work for material. They tried out each other’s voices and, in that act of ventriloquism, worked out how they themselves wanted to sound on the page.

Duggan and Texidor were particularly close and attentive readers of each other’s work. There was mutual admiration – “I wish I could know how you do it … I am envious, and I know it’s a bloody fine thing,” wrote Duggan longingly – but also stern and trenchant criticism. “There’s too much in it,” said Texidor of an early unpublished Duggan story. “It is like a cake made entirely of raisins – it ceases to be a cake if you know what I mean.” Elsewhere, Texidor admired Duggan’s increasingly lush wordplay but cautioned him against over-writing: “though I can take more of this kind of thing than the average reader I did get bogged at the end”, she says of a draft of “That Long Long Road” (1947).

The cosmopolitan Texidor – who had literary contacts of her own, as well as those made through Sargeson – also connected Duggan with potential publishers and editors. Unasked, she forwarded “Sunbrown” to Max Harris, editor of the Australian journal Angry Penguins (soon to fall victim to the celebrated Ern Malley hoax). She counselled against sending another story, featuring a suicide, to the New Zealand Listener, as “it’s unlikely that anything so disgusting as death could appear in a family paper” [her underlining].  She offered to send Duggan’s “Mezzanine” (c1945), along with one of her own stories, to the New York poet-editor Nicolas Calamaris, whom Texidor knew through her former brother-in-law, the Marxist journalist and war correspondent Sherry Mangan.

Duggan’s initial exchanges with Texidor were circumspect and somewhat formal. Still barely in his 20s and with little to show for his literary ambitions beyond a growing pile of rejection slips, he was clearly awed by this exotic older woman whose fiction had already been published in three countries – “Your stuff is terrifically ‘advanced’,” he ventured shyly. But his adulation did not prevent him from offering detailed and perceptive feedback. After reading “Anyone Home?” (1945) in draft, he commented usefully on the dream-like sequences in which Texidor’s central character Roy, a  returned soldier, recalls the experience of anaesthesia. Sargeson particularly disliked these passages, disparagingly describing the story as a “chunk of Greville’s soul-writing”, although he nonetheless included it in his 1945 anthology Speaking For Ourselves. But Duggan’s critique went further, identifying a mismatch between Roy’s “ordinary” character and the “sharp and visual and apt” impressions attributed to him. Observing that “The average colonial isn’t like that – not only his actions but his thoughts are of the earth”, Duggan suggested Texidor show Roy “struggling but unable to express his reactions and condition”. He considered the redrafted story “really amazing and accurate”. Duggan was also unafraid to comment on stories drawing directly on Texidor’s Spanish Civil War experiences, pointing out where a weight of unchecked feeling threatened to overpower the narrative. Of the unpublished “Aller-Retour” (c1945), he praised its strong pictorial images, but was confused by leaps in narrative viewpoint and something unspecified “which is not allowed to come through, and which
inhibits the content and renders it too personal”.

Meanwhile, both writers corresponded regularly with Sargeson, although his letters were generally devoid of close critique. In a tribute in Islands in 1975, Kendrick Smithyman recalled: “It was one of Frank’s principles to shun adverse criticism in case it hurt the learning writer into silence.” Instead, he offered practical advice about possible publishing outlets, commercial matters and daily routines. The only cure for writer’s block, he told the struggling Texidor after her novella These Dark Glasses finally appeared in 1949, was to keep writing: “that’s your solution old dear – just write another one, and remember the past only in what you write”. He identified problems but did not prescribe solutions. When Duggan was oscillating between a colloquial style similar to Sargeson’s own and something more ornate and literary, he did not urge him in either direction, saying only that he saw in him “a reserve of quite boundless potentialities”. Duggan found this studied neutrality frustrating – “Are you still sticking to that idea of not criticising my stories?” he wrote to Sargeson from London in 1951. “It seems a pity – if it didn’t make me change anything it helped me see [his underlining].” Texidor, on the other hand, sometimes seemed unsure about what she wanted from Sargeson – or, indeed, what he was offering: “I haven’t written any more stories lately,” she wrote from Australia. “Probably because you are not there to run your pencil through it or whatever you did. Anyway it worked.”

Sargeson’s disinclination to dissect the work of his protégés did not stop them from dissecting his, though seldom in his hearing. At the height of this three-way correspondence, Sargeson was working on When The Wind Blows (1945), which met with generally poor reviews. Some of the most perceptive early responses came from Texidor. After Sargeson read her an early draft, she told Duggan it was unlikely to be published locally because of its candid treatment of homosexual love, an aspect of the novel that no contemporary reviewer seemed to acknowledge directly. Later, she turned her attention to its shortcomings, telling Duggan it was “extraordinary” that a writer of Sargeson’s quality “can’t find some way of sticking a novel together. The rifts which had appeared in the first part now crack wide open as yawning failures in imagination.”

Sargeson’s influence on emerging writers, and the effect of his expectations, may not always have been benign: certainly, the high attrition rate among his protégés raises questions. But the Sargeson-Texidor-Duggan correspondence suggests that, for a few intense years anyway, this particular relationship was both positive and mutually productive. It helped Texidor and Duggan invent themselves as writers. For Sargeson – who, by the mid-1940s, was seeking a way out of the dead-end to which the compressed, austere stories of the 1930s had led him – it may have played a part in his reinvention. More broadly, eavesdropping on this three-way relationship reminds us that contemporary conversations about mentors, cliques, imitativeness and who gets to manage and modulate our literary production, are really nothing new.

 

Note: All correspondence quoted in this essay is from the Maurice Duggan Papers (MS Papers-1760-09 and -10) and the Frank Sargeson Collection (MS-Papers-0432-182 and -4261-044) held at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. The Sargeson correspondence is quoted with kind permission of the Frank Sargeson Trust.

 

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