Rich and troubling paradox, Vincent O’Sullivan

A Fighting Withdrawal: the life of Dan Davin
Keith Ovenden
Oxford University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0 19 212355 1

Even before this careful and stylish biography came out,to think of Dan Davin was to conjure a rich and in some ways troubling range of paradox. Here, after all, is the man who — with his schoolmate M K Joseph — set the firmest imaginative accounts of New Zealanders at war, yet visited this country for only a matter of months after leaving it as a 23-year-old. Once the war concluded, he believed himself obliged to play over and over the events of his New Zealand years, while his day-to-day life was vastly committed to other things, in other places. As time went by, he overvalued his ear for an increasingly distant vernacular, assumed nostalgia was perhaps closer to creativity than it is and surely restricted himself as a novelist as a consequence of that.

He regretted the cost in time and effort that he expended on his history of military action in Crete and yet this, rather than his novels, may be his major legacy to New Zealand prose. In his personal exchanges a warm and exuberant affection for the ordinary and unpretentious rubbed along with a certain benign Oxonian hauteur. He managed, with an extraordinary absence of strain, an engaging mix of egalitarianism and officer esprit.

Keith Ovenden, with his own slightly insistent awareness of himself as a writer, his tendency to elevate intellect, is from the start in rapport with his subject, with some aspects rather more than with others. It is a conjunction that pays handsome results, even if the reader feels at times that the biographer’s sympathy is for Davin’s having that provincial Catholic background to overcome, rather than with what it was he came from and was indebted to for so much. When the young Davin, for instance, on holiday from Otago University, corrects his family’s sloppy use of language, Ovenden compliments this as a love for precision. It might just as reasonably be read as jejune and priggish.

On another tack, Stuart Johnston’s review in the Dominion took up Ovenden’s tendency to assume rather more about the state of New Zealand letters in the 1950s and 1960s than his knowledge bears out. The scene here was neither as bleak and ill-tempered nor Davin’s own part in it ever quite so central as the Life would have you think. But these reservations, once stated, take their place as simply that. The book’s polish, scholarship and judgment, as it confronts the diverse worlds of Davin’s interests, place it in distinguished enough company, with Alpers’ Mansfield on one side, King’s Sargeson on the other. It’s a tough club to join.

Because Davin recorded or commented, in one form or another, on almost everything that interested him publicly and on private matters in intermittent diaries and extensive correspondence, his was an unusually allusive life, a life that like numerous others is about love and war, death and work but less common in that the way he wrote about such things becomes inseparable from the events.

Davin’s was certainly a mind and a personality both adroit and direct in whatever called for application, quick decision, immediate action. Yet, as Ovenden brings one closer to the man, there is the feeling that he is also literary in a sense that is certainly not the case with every writer. Although Davin never stated it quite so baldly, there is an increasing conviction as one reads that until a thing was written down, until it was recorded or reshaped, expressed in epigram, captured in anecdote, examined in report, replayed in fiction, then its value — a different matter from its importance — remained incomplete. One of Davin’s own favourite stories, of Freyberg ordering his jeep to stop in a position of extreme danger, to confirm whether a bird he heard was indeed a nightingale, mightn’t be a bad image for precisely that: the value drawn from an occasion that has a different ring to the event itself.

Davin was not unique among New Zealand writers in assuming that fiction must inevitably move in the same area as one’s own life, that “imaginative states”, in the sense of going beyond the contours of personal experience, were not in fact an option for him. There is nothing necessarily self-aggrandising in this. The characters he drew pretty much from himself, the clever young Catholic provincials who realign their allegiances are not a particularly likeable crew. Their youthful self-promotion and their levelling scores, like their sometimes luxuriating melancholy, were attributes Davin was sharply critical of in himself. But this kind of writing was consistent with his general aesthetic, his conviction that a novelist should move in the confines of a shared real world. Not all facts need be told, but what you do tell should be faithful to what fact confirms. The best of Davin — the war stories, surely — owe this strength to that, however much his weaknesses begin at that same point.

Ovenden is astute on the fiction. He remarks on the episodic, apparently shapeless structure of For the Rest of Our Lives: “Dan sought to capture the essence of experience — the sense that there is a pattern to what happens in life that gives to experience its organised and directionless quality — and in doing so to marry the model of film to that of novel … though long, it is best read at a sitting and one still comes away from it 50 years after it was written as one might leave a cinema: the mind’s eye full of images, the ear of snatches of dialogue and the mind itself more alive to sensation.” This gives, in my view, a pretty good account of how the novel’s form produces its particular effects.

To some readers, I suspect, the poignant core of this large, sympathetic biography will be the fact that while Davin’s brilliance as a publisher and editor drew so fruitfully for 30 years on his broad intellectual gifts, it also siphoned off a good deal that was essential to him as a writer. In a typical epigram, he could note off-handedly how “every publisher is an author’s sepulchre”. More extensively and with a kind of good-humoured bitterness, he could put the case more fully.

An exacting professional life develops a logic of brevity in writing which is disastrous to the logic of association on which the creative writer depends. Being continually exposed to the vanity of authors, one loses the confidence of one’s own. Along with a scepticism about facts, there develops an excessive respect for those that can be established and this happens at the expense of the power to create fiction. As one grows older, one becomes more interested in what is the same in people and sees the repetitions in this behaviour at the expense of delight in their variety. The philosopher overcomes the gossip and thought kills life.

This is a hovering text, one might think, behind Ovenden’s account of Davin’s persistence with Not There, Not Now, which came out finally in 1970. To begin with, Davin had more than usual difficulty, over several years, in writing this recall of student grudges and student triumphs. He then had trouble placing it with a publisher and no one liked it much when it did appear. In some very good pages Ovenden demonstrates how Davin’s admiration for Anthony Powell and his respect for Patrick White indicate clearly enough where his sympathies lay in contemporary fiction. It was a deeply informed admiration, perhaps a little surprising with White, who constantly dragged against the expectations of realism, but not at all so with Powell’s dense meshing of social intricacies.

But it throws into relief just how dated Davin’s writing had become, how inflexibly he was caught in a loop of obsessions that he broke from only in his last novel, Brides of Price. And there was the discomforting irony even of that, for the writer who felt that New Zealand was what he did best, now showed in his first attempt at a fully contemporary British setting, that it may have been there he should have been writing of. For Davin’s New Zealand was intractably that of the 1930s. He catches so well the tenor of it in the war fiction, for the resonances, of course, are those of his contemporaries, depicted, you might say, while the plaster was still wet. Increasingly, the colours wouldn’t take, as the fictions became more and more exercises in nostalgia or occasions of exorcism. There was poignancy too in Davin’s remarking, when I saw him after his last visit here in 1984, that he saw no point in making the journey again, “because New Zealand wasn’t there any more”. Only Winton pies, he joked, stood the test of time.

But New Zealand was large in another area of Davin’s life, one where we are deeply in his debt. Ovenden’s text, as well as the extensive listing of publications, shows how for decades his was virtually the only pen reviewing New Zealand books for the Times Literary Supplement, furnishing the one chance so many writers had of an English readership even knowing they existed. Those reviews were judicious, without special pleading. They are a substantial and generally unacknowledged part of our literary history. The only writer I ever heard him speak harshly of was one who spread the story that Davin prevented a review of his book appearing in the TLS. He was stung by the unfairness of the charge for the book had never been sent to him. But at least there was satisfaction in that particular writer’s “not having the stink of creativity about him, even on a good day”.

Ovenden’s title, A Fighting Withdrawal, he explains in its military context during the New Zealand Division’s retreat from near Olympus, south through Pharsalis and Thermopylae. (The ironic resonances there, for a classicist!) “Its essence is dogged persistence made possible by the refusal to submit.” The phrase comes in near the beginning of Davin’s war. The next few years, for all the brutality and hardship, were possibly the most rewarding in his life, the years when he confirmed the extent of his competence with men, languages, intellectual challenge, fear. Freyberg and Paddy Costello, his fellow intelligence officer and one of the few intimates he had of clearly greater gifts than his own, became for different reasons his touchstones for the qualities he most respected.

Davin seems in those years to exude a charmed success, when he effortlessly drew admiration and love, proved an excellent soldier and his promise as a writer seemed unconfined, his postwar choices enviably diverse. The darker aptness of that title phrase is put on hold for another 200 pages, to when the enemies of promise are found to hold more positions than was thought, when congenital depression settles like a bird of prey, when a life-long gift for conviviality exacts its grim payoff and to call oneself a writer suddenly means to live off credit. They’re sad reading, these later pages. But as Davin declines it becomes yet more obvious how much he owed to Winnie, his wife, how much was given him for 50 years by the vivacious young woman whom he fell in love with as an 18-year-old student in Dunedin and whose choice of martial to carry her own farewell at his funeral succinctly enough declared her total lack of regret, yet her awareness, too, of quite what she had done for him:

In all thy humour, whether grave or mellow,
Thou’rt such a touchy, testy, pleasant fellow,
Hast so much wit, and mirth and spleen about thee,
There is no living with thee, nor without thee.

There is an inevitable awkwardness, I suppose, with any biography of someone you have known in this business of acquiring an extensive knowledge that simply wasn’t possible during a lifetime. It may be that you revise the man or woman you knew, against the one you didn’t. There is a shift of perspective you can’t avoid, a shift that may have no bearing on feelings, but a good deal on judgment. You may have been wrong where you thought you were on track; you almost certainly saw things more simply than was ever the case.

And there are places where there is bound to be some dissent, even with a biography as deeply informed as Ovenden’s indisputably is. Are there times when he is perhaps shepherding Davin a little too protectively? When he implies, for example, that he was hardly ever publicly the worse for wear in his last years? Keith Sinclair’s memoirs offer merely one witness of a not unusual occasion at Balliol that rather refutes that. It is in the account of that final, pretty harrowing decade that I find myself wanting to say, occasionally, “but there is more to it than that.”

Not that I question Ovenden’s approach or sympathy or tact. It must have been one of his greater challenges, after all, to find the appropriate tone for a chapter where so much is in decline. His placing of the chapters “A Life in Publishing,” and “Critic and Friend,” immediately before the section on “Old Age,” was a deft attending to success after it had occurred, an artistically decisive way to put the brakes on what would have been a prolonged narrative of decline.

What I thought might have been made more of was the importance of Davin’s local friends in those last years. The visits of eminent contemporaries like Gordon Craig are noted, but the story tends to contract to a close family chronicle. This no doubt is where Davin’s attentions were primarily fixed. But there was the deep importance of younger New Zealand friends who lived in Oxford, the sculptor Tony Stones, the scholar Janet Wilson, the actor Bruce Purchase, nearby in Richmond Road, and whose closeness he valued immensely.

In my few meetings with Davin at the beginning of the year he died this was something he frequently mentioned. As he liked reminiscing about the school we had both attended and spoke of his “love, strictly in retrospect”, for the Marist brothers who had taught him, who had introduced him to the intellectual life. He remained convinced he was a better writer than he was given credit for. He was highly diverted by details of Ronald Syme’s discreetly maintained Wellington mistress and both he and Winnie somewhat appalled to have never heard of it before — especially as they hadn’t realised that “women were quite Syme’s thing”. He spoke of Mulgan, whom he admired but may have met only once, if at all, and, not surprisingly, of Paddy Costello — a friendship Ovenden traverses with particular skill. He enjoyed being drawn on those he particularly liked, not simply for their brains or their courage — both always high on his list — but for their joi de vivre and variety as well.

It was a wry undercutting of this expansiveness when he remarked, the last time I saw him, that the worst thing about getting old was that one began to like everybody. A little later that same evening, we ran into three middle-aged New Zealand tourists asking directions around Oxford. They had never heard of Davin, which didn’t bother him in the least. He talked to them warmly, found out where they were from, what they were doing, told them he’d been here a long time. He then, an old and ill man, had to be helped into Purchase’s car. He was buoyed at the chance encounter.


Vincent O’Sullivan is professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington

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