It is intriguing now to flick through the special issue, the self-styled festschrift, of Islands commissioned to mark Frank Sargeson’s seventy-fifth birthday, that appeared in March 1978. A tone of reverence and celebration of the writer sweeps through the pages. Influences upon Sargeson ‑ Henry Lawson, Sherwood Anderson ‑ are noted, but then demoted, deemed secondary to what Lawrence Jones, talking about re-reading Sargeson’s writing, calls the writer’s “inclusive compassion”. The celebration is one full of genuine affection, as well as pride in a figure who, it seemed, pulled this thing called New Zealand literature up by the scruff of its neck and made it respectable.
If this was the picture within during the 1970s, it was not so different without. In the first wave of writing about what was then called “Commonwealth Literature”, Sargeson was very often a cipher for the totality of New Zealand writing and the project of a cultural decolonisation. In the nascent texts of postcolonial criticism, the kind that would contain a chapter on “New Zealand”, the whole question of a national literature, of literary difference, could, it appeared, be read in the moves of Sargeson’s prose. Sargeson himself contributed to these processes in the three volumes of his autobiography which appeared during the 1970s, confirming much of the literary persona ‑ in particular his attachment to the land and the almost tortuous development of his style ‑ that had built around him since the appearance of Conversation with my Uncle and Other Sketches in 1936.
It is Sargeson’s position as the revolutionary nationalist of the 1930s, the constructor of a specific New Zealand form of prose, capturing the specifics of New Zealand speech, that underlies these 1970s assessments. From the position of the Islands special, Sargeson appears as the most vital of a group of writers ‑ Denis Glover, ARD Fairburn, RAK Mason, John Mulgan, Allen Curnow and others ‑ who forged a national identity in writing and wrote many of the rules for the subsequent development of that writing. The solidity of this approach dominated much of the critical work in New Zealand for 40 years.
With this in mind, it is fascinating to read in a letter Sargeson wrote to Denis Glover in June 1936, that the immediate event leading to the publication of Conversation with my Uncle was Sargeson’s disappointment in not obtaining a passage to England, where he was determined to take a play he had been working on. The publication of the sketches, he tells Glover, will go towards getting the fare for a subsequent passage. “I feel I’ve simply got to go and find out definitely if my play can get produced,” he goes on. “I want to know one way or the other and if after pestering various people in England I find it’s the other, well, I suppose I shall come back here.” The irony here is nice. The prose that launched the ideology of New Zealand literary nationalism is actually being rushed out in order to support a venture where the final critical judgment would be that of the former Imperial centre.
This kind of inversion is typical of the results of any hunt through the workings of the Sargeson mythology. The careful positioning of Sargeson within the emerging literary canon (largely through reviews of the 1930s and 1940s material ‑ writing in 1946 Anton Vogt is typical in his wonderful excessive comments on Sargeson: “His sketches are as native as the tui and about as romantic as a tui’s life is likely to be with a small boy after it with an air-gun.”) is time and time again at odds with the machinations of the production of the prose. All through the 1930s and even into the 1940s Sargeson was trying to write what he called the “great New Zealand novel”, a “sort of New Zealand Ulysses” where, far from searching for the authentic language of location, it was the structures of European modernism that were the ultimate guide.
In his sketches of laconic, itinerant male labourers, Sargeson’s focus is not simply upon the detritus of a post-puritan New Zealand. His celebration of the authenticity of such figures is entirely at one with many of the dominant movements of English writing during the same period. Whether it was Malcolm Lowry championing the vitality of life aboard ship in Ultramarine (1933), the hero in WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s verse drama The Ascent of F6 (1936) or the subject of numerous other manifestations in prose and poetry, the quasi-marxist celebration of the individual ‑ really a form of proletarian pastoralism ‑ was one of the most common depiction of writing in English during the decade.
Sargeson had submitted a novel to Jonathan Cape in London in 1930. Its subsequent rejection was a fact he would later mobilise in charting his move towards the nationalism of the 1930s, a process made orthodox by the readings of subsequent criticism. Yet he was always influenced by the standards of European writing and an analysis of his stories within the paradigm of the decade’s English literature is hugely rewarding.
In truth, the interrogation of the layers surrounding Sargeson and his work in the 1930s and 1940 do not result in an easy move that simply disqualifies him from any notion of a literary nationalism. One of the problems in reading Sargeson’s early sketches is that they offer themselves up so invitingly for interpretation. It was easy to load the ideology of a blinkered, narrow nationalism upon them ‑ something perfected by the critical reception that followed.
Equally, current moves to celebrate the nature of Sargeson’s homosexuality in his work run the risk of simply replacing one ideology with another, the work proving porous enough to accommodate the shift. Yet Sargeson’s interactions with the English writers of the 1930 and with their forms and methods, present us with an opportunity to recognise the multi-faceted nature of 1930s nationalism in New Zealand ‑ to see the national not as a given or immutable concept, but as a highly complicated set of processes that refine the concept of the collective.
Sargeson’s relations with other New Zealand writers function in a similar way. Throughout the 1930s he qualified his respect for Curnow’s poetry with the feeling that Curnow’s creative writing was clichéd and his critical writing full of “lively invention”. It was, of course, Curnow himself who was by far the most sophisticated figure at understanding the many faces of cultural nationalism and it is fascinating to see Sargeson, himself a master of “Invention”, never quite grasp the full nature of Curnow’s project.
Along with Fairburn and Glover, Sargeson was often vituperative in his comments on the female writers of the 1930s. Even while he knew her and socialised with her, Sargeson’s private commentaries on Robin Hyde railed against her personality, her work and (interestingly) the influence she had over the growing audience for New Zealand material. “I’ve told her that even if she’s raped by 2000 Japanese soldiers she can’t possibly have more than five children at a time,” he writes to Glover on hearing of Hyde’s decision to leave for England via Asia. His criticism of Hyde, both the person and the writer, is often articulated in terms of the body. Like Glover and Fairburn, part of this anger lay in his perception that the New Zealand reflected in Hyde’s work and the work of other female writers was simply wrong, a false picture. Even as he kept his eye on the critical judgments of Europe, he reserved the right to be an arbiter of the national literary space.
In many ways Sargeson’s ill health and financial difficulties of the mid- to late-1940s serve as a paradigmatic example of the multiple nature of New Zealand’s cultural nationalism during the period. With his reputation growing following the heightened profile of literature during the celebrations for the 1940 centennial, Sargeson was nevertheless in sufficient difficulties to require the intervention of government aid. Joseph Heenan, then the Under-Secretary to the Minister of Internal Affairs and in many ways the main figure behind the 1940 celebrations, used his government position to help with the rebuilding of Sargeson’s Takapuna bach. He was also a catalyst in negotiations over social security payments to Sargeson and even attempted to persuade the editors of the country’s major newspapers to commission Sargeson to write articles and reviews.
In many ways, then, Sargeson became the first national writer, in the sense of the overlap between the state and the literary culture that was very much responsible for developing the idea of a national literature in the 1940s. The support for Sargeson was a recognition of his status. But this nationalism is not the celebration of the “native tui” nature of his writing. It is the far less glamorous institutionalisation of literature into the public sphere.
Sargeson moves around ideas of the national and international, of the artistic freedom of writing just as that writing begins to find a set of languages for its location. The misty-eyed happiness of the Islands special still seems to carry with it a slight element of shock, celebrating what was once referred to as the “atmosphere” that Sargeson was. This idea of the Sargesonesque pervading the ether is quasi-religious (it is interesting that Charles Brasch called him “the patron saint of his métier“ and Helen Shaw talked of his work amounting to “a totality, to one man’s world”), a mix of the excitement that came from reading a writer of Sargeson’s quality and then further readings of cultural value ‑ when it was realised that this quality was local.
But on the whole atmospherics don’t aid us much in the processes of cultural history. It is now possibly as interesting to devote as much time and study to the critical mythology of Sargeson, the reverence and the critical effusion, as it is to any evaluation of his work. Certainly the latter is heavily buried under the former and it requires a fair amount of digging to find it, but each process reveals much about New Zealand. A colleague once told me that Sargeson would be his surprise choice for any collection of twentieth-century short stories written in English and the inclusion would be one that is without doubt warranted. Sargeson still possesses the ability to surprise, the stories revealing that they had anticipated your critical position before you got there. It would be another nice irony if the main recipient of any new surprise was the national culture which thought that they knew him so well.
Stuart Murray teaches English at Trinity College, Dublin. He is editing a collection of essays on post–coloniality and cultural nationalism which will be published next year.