Sleeping with the Angels
Years ago, before we went down with post-modernism, people used to ruminate about whether writers used the short story as an apprenticeship to the novel, or whether it was a different trade altogether. The idea of serving an apprenticeship is pretty old-fashioned nowadays, though most New Zealand Books readers probably still have an inkling of what it meant, with all its connotations of learning the craft from a master. But no-one has ever wondered aloud whether you could serve your writing apprenticeship in poetry, and then go into business on your own account as a prose writer. The Charles Brasch idea was that poetry was the highest form, anyway, and that other genres operated on a lower plane of existence. Perhaps he meant that you couldn’t make a living from it the way you can from journalism. And mostly poetry and fiction have operated closed shops, though recently in their various ways Elizabeth Smither, Roma Potiki and Anne Kennedy have worked in both. Vincent O’Sullivan doesn’t count, because he seems bent on writing brilliantly in every possible genre.
I haven’t heard much apprenticeship talk for a while, not since texts began “writing themselves” and being “written” by their “readers” (very much easier all round, that sort of thing, though it never seems to happen on my keyboard). But in Sleeping with the Angels we may have a case of the reverse: a career in poetry followed by a prosaic retirement. Kevin Ireland has published a dozen collections of poetry over his 30-year writing career, but he began to publish stories only recently, since his return to New Zealand. Although he has never publicly evinced much interest in prose, beyond having lent Barry Crump his personal library back in the 1950s while A Good Keen Man was being gestated, it is clear he has been keeping at least one eye on magazine writing. If Sleeping with the Angels does well we may yet see his first published novel. (There are stories of various Ireland first drafts which never made it any further than that, in spite of encouraging remarks from a London publisher. Did the poet get bored?)
Several of the stories in Sleeping with the Angels first appeared in Metro, and the whole collection has that magazine feel – competent, sometimes clever, amusing in places, but contrived and insubstantial. This is fiction, they say – you know, a light concoction. Almost none of Ireland’s characters makes a claim on the reader’s emotions. They are caricatures of unlikeable people we know only slightly, without depth, without real feeling. There are some good lines here and some amusing situations. But just when you begin to be drawn into a story the author gives up on it. To use one of the Ireland’s favourite fishing metaphors, the best of these stories start playing like kahawai but rapidly manage to spit out the hook and vanish. The others were baby yellowtail all along – easy, eager and all bones.
Take the (almost) title story, for instance, “Angels Love Chestnuts”. It begins full of promise, with an affair and a cross mistress. (“On her way to the bath she turned to the man in the bed, and said plainly and steadily, ‘You’re not driven by lust, Mr Robert Comfybollocks. Pride, envy, avarice, in small doses, maybe – but guilt is your real problem. You couldn’t sin properly, even if you tried. You don’t have the talent. You just stroll into someone’s life, help yourself to the goodies, then you stroll off, feeling bad. It’s never for very long. Then you hurl yourself at somebody else. ‘”) But at that point, just when the mistress has understood something and the bloke has a choice on his hands – the opportunity to respond, even to think, or the option of whipping smartly back to his uncomplaining wife – the story takes a hidden right-angle turn into whimsy and all we get are the wife’s fantasies about sexy angels and chestnut oil. Is this magic realism or what? And should we expect more?
Many of the moments of understanding are like this. Too often they are composed of easy, reconstituted insight. It’s not just the yuppies in “A Hole in the Ground” who specialise in snappy, Shortland Street wisdom. (“Linda said slowly and tiredly, ‘It’s all over, darling, isn’t it? Between you and me. ‘Two hours, ten minutes,’ he replied. ‘That’s how long I’ve been sure – if you want to be precise. But it seems a lot longer.'”) Most of the other characters make their life decisions at a similar speed. Gloria Ferst, the former runner, recovers from her divorce in the time it takes to look at a box of newspaper clippings and find her old running shoes in the wardrobe. The narrator in “Darlene on my Mind” only needs to take his new boat out once to have the best boating experience of his life (mixed, as it is, with behaving like a right proper bastard to his wife).
The only fully drawn character is William Henry Windsor, “The Man of the Minute”, who engages in more self-reflection than anyone else in the book. His moment of insight is hard won. “She’s standing there, and I’m sitting here looking at her, and there’s these big questions between us. Who, why, how – but most of all, when? We were always together, so how did she find time to do it? Then I switch off and I ask myself things like: who scored the fastest century in the club in the 1960s or who took the longest time ever in club history to score a duck? The thing about cricket is the endless fascination of the game. Time and statistics. They can take your mind off anything.”
As well as toying with insight these stories conduct a dalliance with whimsy. In “Angels Love Chestnuts” it takes the form of sexy fantasies of an angel-incubus, with developed predilections; in “Illustrious Ancestors” the protagonist’s dead relatives come back to run things their way; in “Perfect Words” an author is bossed around by his own characters. The ghosts in “Ancestors” are quite fun (Dad complains at length about the state of the garden), but the threat from the characters in “Perfect Words” is stagey and silly. Perhaps Ireland should have a crack at writing ghost stories in the manner of M R James. Without any scary bits it all becomes rather tedious.
Ireland’s prose is, all in all, a bit disappointing. At its best his poetry is tight and spare and sinewy, witty and sharp. His most recent book, Skinning a Fish, largely suffers from the same emotional constriction as these stories, but on the verbal level it is as clean and competent as ever. The title sequence may not be his best work, but it is fine writing. If his prose matched up, it would crackle along. What’s the problem?
Is it a question of horses for courses? Perhaps Ireland is a sprinter who doesn’t yet have the stamina for a 10-km race? Is it to do with long-established habits of thought? Poets, after all, are lucky enough to be able to hold the complete work in their mind at once, in a way that novelists simply cannot. But maybe it’s just a matter of learning a different craft from the beginning. Elizabeth Smither has certainly taken time to work with confidence in prose, and her stories as yet have little of the concise perfection of her poems. Perhaps all that talk of apprenticeships had something behind it after all. “The life so short, the craft so long to learn,” as Hippocrates once remarked (and Ireland himself embellished in Literary Cartoons). And not very much of it transferable from one genre to another, either, it would appear.
Anne French is a writer and editor now living in Wellington. While at Oxford University Press she published Ireland’s Selected Poems and Practice Night in the Drill Hall.