Myth-busting, Harry Ricketts

The Penguin History of New Zealand Literature
Penguin Books
Auckland, 1990, $24.95

‘The story of New Zealand literature is a chapter of accidents,’ declares Patrick Evans in the introduction to his History of New Zealand Literature. ‘It is the provisional nature of the field I wish above all to emphasise, the arbitrariness with which things happen and the remarkable coincidences that are required for anything to look as if it has shape or a purpose.’ At first this seems a somewhat odd premise on which to base a book calling itself the history of a literature. In fact after a few pages the idea that what one is reading is not really a history at all but an ‘unhistory’ feels perfectly natural and appropriate. How could one have imagined the story of New Zealand literature would turn out to be anything other than an ‘unhistoric’ one?

All the same the writing of an ‘unhistory’ does contain certain undeniable problems, particularly of structure. How do you give a sense of coherence to something essentially accidental, provisional, arbitrary, coincidental, shapeless and purposeless? At least some illusion of coherence is required if your reader is going to appreciate just how incoherent the story you’re telling really is. How, more specifically, do you present a literature like New Zealand’s which has promulgated various myths about itself ‑ that it all began, for instance, with the Phoenix group in 1932 ‑ but has conspicuously failed to produce even the most notional of ‘authorised versions’? An ‘authorised version’ would, after all, be relatively simple to subvert; myths, being more amorphous hence more potent, are an altogether tougher proposition. Evans’s solution ‑ really the only one open to him ‑ is to maintain the shadow of a traditional linear account while at the same time boxing against it. To emerge, as he does, standing more or less upright, is no mean feat.

Closer in, though, what does this ‘unhistory’ offer? It kicks off with three chapters on the early years c1848-1932. In those the work of a string of poets like Blanche Baughan (‘profoundly rooted here’) and Eileen Duggan (‘an odd mixture of Christ and butterflies’) is deftly put in context and given its modest due as is that of a succession of novelists like William Satchell (‘glum gumless vision’) and Jean Devanny (‘The world she shows is full of people battling one another for power’). Ardent Mansfieldians should he warned that KM gets pretty short shrift. This mercifully brisk opening is followed by no less than seven chapters covering the 1932c1972 period. The two final chapters then bring us up to the present with not much more than a rapid roll-call of names and titles. (Not surprisingly, these last two chapters show Evans at his least assured, especially on Maori and women’s writing.) So, twelve chapters in all, each with a substantial end-note to locate references and supply bibliographical and other details.

As this quick breakdown indicates, the bulk of the book is devoted to the period of white male dominated groups or, as some would see it, the age of Curnow in poetry and Sargeson in prose. Concentrated attention on these fairly crucial years is what one would expect and it is in these seven chapters that the real value of Evans as ‘unhistorian’ shows its worth. Towards Sargeson and Curnow in particular he is refreshingly undeferential. While the reasons for Sargeson’s rise to pre-eminence by the late 40s are shrewdly adumbrated and the quality of the short stories and novels given judicious appraisal, no punches are pulled. Here, for instance, is the Evans résumé of the Sargeson trademarks: ‘the realistic background picked out in detail, the demotic language, the presence of a persona of limited abilities. Someone not very bright is going to tell us something about somewhere not very nice.’ Terrific.

As the anthologist of A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945 and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960), Curnow is handled with a similar mixture of justice and arsenic. ‘The bouncer at the doorway of New Zealand poetry’ and ‘the inescapable voice of the father admonishing his sons’ are two of many phrases that stick in the mind. By comparison, Curnow as poet receives distinctly skimpy and inadequate treatment ‑ my one major reservation about this whole section of the book. No reservations though about Evans among the male groups. Here he is always at his ‘myth-busting’ best. On the Phoenix group, for instance. This was the group of writers associated with the short-lived magazine Phoenix (1932-3) ‑ Curnow, Mason, Fairburn et al ‑ who managed to convince everyone for years that they were the real originators of New Zealand poetry/ literature. They did? Well, listen to this: ‘Far from representing a radical break from the past Phoenix represents an attempt to find some kind of authenticity, to derive origin and continuity from the very cultural epicentre [i.e. England] it is commonly supposed to have been trying to leave behind.’ Future students of New Zealand literature please note.

Or what of the later group ‑ Ian Wedde, Russell Haley, Murray Edmond, Alan Brunton and co ‑ which claimed to be ‘making it new’ in the slightly longer-lived magazine Freed (1969-72)? According to Evans the Freed poets may have wanted to see themselves, certainly wanted others to see them as quite separate from ‘the historical mainstream of [local] poetry … But the magazine seems to show them positioned ambiguously, perched aloof on the banks but with their swimming clothes and towels at the ready’. The story of New Zealand literature a chapter of accidents? Fine; I couldn’t put it down.


Harry Ricketts is a Senior lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington and author of several books on New Zealand literature. He is at present researching a major biography of Rudyard Kipling.



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