Puzzling over the best way to tell it, Kendrick Smithyman

The Singing Whakapapa
C K Stead
Penguin Books, $24.95

In February last year C K Stead spoke to the twenty-seventh Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association congress. He called his address “Narrativity, or the Birth of the Story” and published it in Landfall 186. His stalking horse is Roland Barthes, particularly that essay of Barthes’ which goes on about the death of the author and the birth of the reader. Stead is not convinced that he is himself dead. The hell with écriture and destruction of the voice, every voice and point of origin. Stead, a stubborn man, continues to believe “there is a person who sits down with a pen or at a keyboard and who puzzles over the best way something should he told; and that this silent, boring person leaves distinct traces of himself or herself which common readers learn to recognise and come to expect, enjoy, admire and even to love.”

Stead’s new book is a very told novel, product of an unnamed and almost omniscient narrator of whose presence the reader, however common, cannot help being aware as the story tellings (there are more stories than one) move back and forth from one generation to another, from a cause to an outcome or to question the validity of assuming causes where outcomes mutate and complicate. The relatively constant factor of the new book is Hugh Grady, who isn’t actually Hugh at all, an historian who late in the telling publishes a collection of essays titled Without Cause. Actually he’s not only Hugh; he is also Wolf when young, a fictitious companion and alter ego. (You may recall a cryptic poem from Stead years ago and one line of it, ‘What Wolf began, Eagle accomplishes.’) Properly speaking, Hugh is Hugo and prior to the historian role he was a librarian. At the outset he was Hugo Wolf Grady in tribute to one of the men of music who figure in The Singing Whakapapa.

In that whakapapa, which is presented as a necessary prelude to the family stories, the oldest person is the historic William Fairburn who is credited with an unnamed wife (p60) and has no wife as mother for his named children, one of whom becomes brother‑in‑law to the catechist John Flatt, Hugh Grady’s ancestor. There seems no reason why Mrs Fairburn should not be identified (she was Sarah Tuckwell) but one has to notice the mysterious lack of name in what is rightly advertised as a compelling historical detective story, just as one must notice that at the other end of the genealogical table the report of Hugh Grady’s grandchildren is incomplete. (The last name given is Carlo. It would be nice to have had a Wystan occurring before this, dare it be said?)

The reason for one omission, a matter of plot development, will eventually he discovered, but the other remains uncertain. Where so much is calculated we are not well advised simply to forge ahead, knowing as we do from previous Stead fictions that it pays to exercise what Stead once called “the natural scepticism of the critic” and make enquiries of the text. I take it that “Harieta Rongo” instead of the customary “Hariata” is no more meaningful than the three ways of spelling the name of a seemingly insignificant rail stop on the North Auckland line. I cannot see why Tapsell the trader should be described as a Norwegian, or why schoolteachers who like to quote with pride Kipling’s “Recessional” and its line “Last loneliest loveliest ‑ exquisite, apart ‑ ” do not get the quotation right (although later the Swedish migrant to Auckland who “now knows his Kipling” gets it correct) and why they do not know the line is not from “Recessional” but from “The Song of the Cities”.

To return to the whakapapa, and John Platt, Hugh’s great‑great‑grandfather, who arrived in New Zealand at the end of 1834, whose forebears were Cambridge yeomen farmers who could be traced through several generations. John Flatt’s son Robert married Annie McDermott, an elderly Miss McDermott has some of John Flatt’s papers which Hugh seeks as he researches his family having given up “real history, which was, so to speak, in the public domain, in favour of his family story, his ‘singing whakapapa'”. Hugh was himself something of a singer, an ability which he passed on to at least one of his children, as it had been passed down to him from his mother and her mother as well. Music, especially opera, informs these generations, their passion moving through Brahms and Wolf to its fullest affirmation in Wagner. Their genealogical tree sings, a genealogy which promotes questions. In search of answers Hugh, along with research assistant Jean‑Anne Devantier, becomes (there is surely sufficient hint) the Singing Detective of the Singing Whakapapa.

John Flatt had a granddaughter, Charlotte. She married a master mariner from Sweden, Carl Christianson and produced a daughter, EtheL who became the mother of Hugh (Hugo Wolf) Grady and his sister Aida Norma, who has next to no part in Hugh’s story. Ethel’s husband, James Grady, is from another North Auckland family group whose base is between Kaiwaka on the railway and main highway and Mangawhai on the coast. Mangawhai, as it is named elsewhere, or Hakaru as named here, is the reality which is local and special, the point at which Hugh as detective picks up the traces and explores the Problem (or Mystery) of John Flatt, the great‑great‑grandfather, the Mystery of the origins of Carl Christianson, the grandfather, and the Case of Hugh himself, the discovery of himself as grandfather. But it is not only “Mangawhai” the local and the special which are integral aspects of family, although as answers to enquiry they may not speak readily, as facts physical or (call it) spiritual they may equivocate. There is a line of Auden’s, “O tell me the truth about love”, which must have occurred to Hugh as he sought the truth about love, one kind of fact, and enquired into the maturing of John Flatt, the death of the girl Tarore and Flatt’s undeceiving when the Church Missionary Society dismissed him. Another truth about love is sought in “tracking down the facts about Carl Christianson’s parentage and relatives ‑ facts of which Carl himself had remained ignorant all his life”. Then, the truth about love and the ultimate revelation which is made to Hugh.

Yet when does fact become something other? Carl Christianson whose birth was so obscure but was eventually brought into the light was to die in Noumea before Hugh was born, and lies “still unvisited by any of his kin”. Tarore, the girl murdered and mutilated in 1846, had her burial place restored in 1977. It is now threatened by overgrowing grass, weeds and what seems to be the wild missionary rose while the mission man whom she served lies unmarked, his stone lost, his grave forgotten. Hugh may have some cause for unease at the same times as he rejoices at the latest birth. At that, death is something to sing about; Hugh has at times thought Strauss’s Four Last Songs “the most beautiful music ever written”. If a birth is the rounding‑off of the book, a birth and a discovery, The Singing Whakapapa‘s beginning is at a burial at Hakaru where Hugh has it in mind it is all of 50 years, “only a brief half‑century” since he came to the farm of his second cousins as a 10‑year‑old, the farm which stays familiar and benign. And dear, its images cherished.

Something has to be said about Hugh’s memories. They are not only his, they are, quite a lot of them, also C K Stead’s who is of a like age. When Hugo/ Wolf walk over ploughed land gathering gum (p14) he/ they do as “I” of the poem “After the Wedding”, who remembered

… heat in the ploughed field

where I gathered fossil gum

and where “half a century before he had ridden Bos’n to collect the meat” and was attacked by bees (p16) in “Twenty-One Sonnets”, No 15 (incidentally, “For Sam Hunt”), “I” tells the tale of the bees and their attack as “I” went to bring up the meat on “a horse called Bosun” on which “I” passed “Over a hill above a brown dam” like “the brown waters of the dam” (p16). The text of The Singing Whakapapa was established in 1992‑93; the poem “After the Wedding” is in the collection Between (1988) and the sonnet inscribed to Sam Hunt is given as from “Autumn 1975” (a section heading) in Walking Westward (1979). There are more instances than these. Plainly, over the years Stead one way and another returned to Hakaru, a reality local and special indeed. Something surely significant may be seen along with the Sam Hunt piece, that is, it occurs between Nos 13 and 17 of the “Twenty‑One Sonnets”, with which compare Whakapapa p23, the sonnets being notably moving celebrations of the mother and music.

The point is, C K Stead exists and I see no reason to believe that the “I” of the poems which apparently relate to this new novel is a fiction and the recurring images likewise; Kaiwaka, Hakaru and Mangawhai exist, what I am for convenience calling images occur in some of Stead’s seemingly personal poems and in the novel where they are expanded in an elaboration which may be an effort to add to a sense of authenticity, by sheer density and detailing. For instance, what pertains to the small vignette quoted above now reads (p14)

… some small deposits of gum had remained, and a boy, two boys, Hugo and Wolf, had walked over ploughed fields finding pieces the shares had turned up, sometimes fine and clear, translucent amber, with bubbles, sometimes crumbling and opaque, ‘sugar gum’ is was called, but it all went into the sack and in Auckland the factory paid a shilling a pound.

The elaboration probably helps readers who don’t know about kauri gum, again something special if not local only to a part of Northland, but it is a part of setting the scene and getting it right. As another note on authenticity there must be other readers who are going to respond to a point of detail as 1 did, the glimpse (p21) of Hugo “on the couch at one end of the room reading Alf’s Button” which, about Hugo’s age and like Hugo a kid up from town, I came across on another northern gumland farm.

Hugo shares C K Stead’s experiences in the early years of life and later preoccupations, but Hugo is not C K Stead. No way, man. However, back to the whakapapa, and the furthest generations, and the names there which are in the public domain, William Fairburn, William Colenso and John Flatt who (according to a biographical note attached to Stead’s Whether the Will is Free, 1964) was the great-great-grandfather of C K Stead. Flatt is credited with a brother Robert, who married Annie McDermott. An “Ode” subtitled “at the grave of Martin McDermott” (Crossing the Bar, 1972) refers to this man as “Our forebear” so the elderly Miss McDermott who held some Flatt papers and was kin to Hugh Grady was presumably kin to Stead as well. Or could have been, if she wasn’t invented?

The problem of John Flatt is built up on what Hugh refers to as “real history” and “real people”. Whatever the extent of fictionalising which develops, a convincing sense of period has been brought about by someone who may have had something of family tradition to call on but has nonetheless done his homework among documents, not always identified (as in using Reverend Robert Burrows’ Extracts from a Diary … published in 1886) or needing to be. A successful historical recreation, the problem of John Flatt is nonconformist in several respects, notably in regard to Henry Williams, and to the less notable Richard Davis. The problem is to find an explanation for the way the CMS treated Flatt, in part to vindicate Flatt who was not well served by the society and his fellow Christians in the field, in part to humanise and flesh the local and special, and otherwise shadowy, figure.

The mystery of Carl Christianson, another period matter and again well handled, is a vastly different scenario from John Flatt’s ‑ a Victorian mystery of birth and breeding, with a touch perhaps of Ingmar Bergman turning into a colonial and South Seas tale but, as one knows from something heard or read here and something there, charged with fidelity to experience. Carl Christianson’s involvement with the Flatt line leads from his marriage to Charlotte Flatt and their daughter Ethel Elena’s marriage to James Grady on to the Grady-Abrahams-Beaumont family group, the Kaiwaka‑Hakaru‑Mangawhai extended family. The documents of this mystery are a number of Stead’s poems, of the reality which is prior to the present work; and what one may fairly judge are from word of mouth, oral family history; and if not from a master mariner’s metal box then from something like it, postcards, photos, studio portraits. Closer to the present day, there is more disguising of source material; how far Willis Handy is sketched from life may not be determined by us, but he and his brother “cousins of my cousins, Champions of Australasia / at the cross‑cut saw” (“The Kin of Place”) are there named but not as Handy. Transformation of a source can be followed when No 6 of the “Twenty-One Sonnets” is compared with pp253‑4, mainly change by way of increased detail and whatever part of that is invented is wholeheartedly in keeping with the novel as it concerns the Beaumonts and Gradys and the Christiansons. But the sonnet does something more. it gives another maiden name for the little girl who boards for two, not three, years with the German family in Dickens Street, formerly Disraeli Street in Hugh’s rather fussy observation. The name in the sonnet is not Christianson but one, so to speak, closer to home.

The case of Hugh himself helps, may even be dictated by, considerations of the design of this family saga. The adult Hugh’s women strike me as purposes more than personalities, means to the ends of narrative before being people. This is not simply because they are subordinated to Hugh’s own purposes at a time when Hugh is elderly even if Hugh is not quite calm of mind, all passion spent. Whatever Hugh has in common with his author he needs more salt (or perhaps saltpetre) on his tail. He is not a fellow you will believe might jump his own height. Where he is believable, persuasive, is where he is younger, before he meets Lydia. The novel works best when its concerns are held at some distance. Nonetheless, overall the whakapapa sings, as did Cecilia, Ethel, cousin Linny, Hugh himself and Jean‑Anne. There can’t have been so much singing since The Matriarch.

Patently some readers are going to see measure of provocation in the title of the latest work from Stead, initially in the title and then by the implication that some pakeha can take their line of descent back before the Treaty of Waitangi in this country and if need be further in another. They will also notice that Hugh shares some of Stead’s opinions as well as experiences; see, for instance, Hugh’s opinions on guilt, women and the native race. That is, of course, if Hugh is accurately reported by the not quite omniscient teller of the tales, where there may also be something teasing.

Stead is not noticeably an enthusiast of fashionable doctrines of literary theory. This novel may be taken as a repudiation of Barthes’ best‑known and as yet not altogether outmoded bit of theorising. The design has something to do with frame narrative, not so much breaking the frame as crumpling it, and the teller who stands between us and Hugh is conceivably an unreliable narrator. One or two instances of possible unreliability were mentioned earlier. One particularly has to be remarked, the bold declaration about the resources of the camp on Malden Island including the gramophone with the big curved horn and the three hundred cylinder recordings, among them recordings made by Jenny Lind (p206).

“There are no works, there are only auteurs” – Jean Giraudoux

Kendrick Smithyman has published 13 books of poetry. He retired from the English department of Auckland University in 1987.

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