Seamless and civilised, Norman Bilbrough

The Blind Blonde with Candles in her Hair
C K Stead
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 0 140 27375 1

The best stories in this collection are world-class, and the lesser ones are still full of interest. I felt a certain loss when I’d finished reading them.

It’s confidence that makes a story world-class. Confidence of the writer, obviously, but, just as importantly, confidence of the story. The narrative develops with fluency and ease, and issues are examined without the author’s intrusion.

Too many stories published in this country come stamped “Made in New Zealand”. The writer’s lack of confidence is usually compensated for by self-consciousness, stylistic gymnastics and a refusal to let the story tell itself. A lot of our short stories are performances: the writer showing off foremost, and the story mumbling along in the wings. As a reviewer and a reader, it’s a relief to find none of these obtrusive traits in Stead’s stories.

Of course he has faults. He can be slightly too clever, he likes to make an intellectual flourish at the beginning of some stories; so his entrances can be obscure. And there is some obscurity in the content. His narrative range in this collection is also narrow. If you’re not interested in middle-class academics (or writers) who have a finely-tuned sense of culture, and who are mostly away from New Zealand and indulging in international sex, these may not be the stories for you.

Then there’s the sex. It’s sex with few strings attached. Fancy-free stuff. Except for a story set in Sydney, there are no wives struggling with kids back in New Zealand and giving the narrator guilt attacks or impotence as he beds his northern hemisphere lovers.

But then there are all those good things: the qualities that made me really want more after I had finished the book. Stead knows how to tell stories, seemingly effortlessly. They creep up on a reader: you’re unaware of the mechanisms of scene-setting, conflict, climax and resolution struggling away under it all. They’re seamless, they’re also civilised. They’re about civilised people who make culture their business. But their lives are not rarefied: I didn’t find the stories claustrophobic in any way. And Stead is excellent at characterisation – indeed most of the stories are character-driven. He has a particular relationship with his characters. He’s never harsh or critical – even when they’re repulsive. He likes them and he indulges them. This makes for attractive reading. And throughout the collection I was never bored, enjoying each story, and looking forward to the next.

The first, “Concerning Alban Ashtree”, is one of three dealing with a visiting New Zealand academic, Professor Henry Bulov, and the Canadian poet Alban Ashtree. It’s winter on the Canadian campus, and Bulov is lonely and slightly melancholic. He’s staying in Ashtree’s room and discovering personal and secret information about the poet. Ashtree’s reputation leads Bulov inadvertently to the ice-queen Libby Valtraute who, it turns out, isn’t quite the feminist Bulov hoped she would be. She doesn’t react like a full-blown radical when he makes his cautious advances. This disappoints him. It’s as if he’s been denied all that expected opposition (to men) which could make the seduction more charged and erotic. She simply tells him she wants to go to bed with him. It’s a story whose content is wilfully meandering – but it’s full of wry cultural comments and lovely observations on the part of Bulov. He’s the first of Stead’s perceptive narrators – layering, dressing and nudging the story on with his intelligence.

“Class, Race, Gender: a Post-Colonial Yarn” has a break-down of credibility at its centre. This is one of those cross-class sex stories that seem to titillate the English imagination.

Bertie is an old public school chappie. And he enters into a passionate liaison with Thelma Button, a waitress at a restaurant where he frequently dines. Their passion grows, and predictably Thelma’s feelings for Bertie intensify to an embarrassing degree. He tries to break off with her – but the sex pulls them back together. One day, after prolonged and hectic coupling back at Thelma’s flat, her Arthur comes home unexpectedly. Arthur is a security guard at the British Museum, and he’s black. Thelma manages to silently lock him out and Arthur disappears – presumably to find the caretaker to fix the lock. Now Bertie has time to escape. He could leave forever: “He thought of setting off, running, carrying his shoes. But no, the idea was ridiculous. Some sort of dignity had to be preserved.” So Bertie struggles into his socks, and fights with his shoe laces – and gets caught by Arthur who’s just popped through a window. Silly Bertie.

Perhaps I didn’t understand Bertie’s make-up, but it seems to me that the story depends on him almost allowing himself to be caught. It loses credibility here: it’s sabotaged by an inauthentic device. Still it does carry on in an entertaining manner. Bertie goes to the museum to make an apology, and Arthur deals to him verbally. His reaction to Bertie’s pompous dignity is a wonderful shot into the bare backside of English class.

Another sex story which, to put it crudely, hits the spot, is “Sex in America”. It’s an excellent story, full of entertainment and wit. How does one imagine heterosexual sex in America? Like a mouth stuffed full of over-flavoured bubblegum? Or two weeks in Disneyland? Or a continual Playboy centre-fold? Well, this particular shot of sex is mercenary (Stead’s description) – and apparently unstoppable. The narrator – another Kiwi – meets a French woman in an American art gallery. He expresses interest in a Miro print – she becomes his lover for three days – and the sex is, well, miraculous. It is also, it must be said, almost too much like a male fantasy. It’s so damn sustained (with echoes of super-stud) and the girl’s so hungry and demanding and . . . But it is entertaining. Stead deflates all the Playboy gymnastic stuff with a neat little ironic twist at the end that brings the frantic episode firmly down to earth. Mindful of the difficulty writers have with intense and believable fictional sex, this is definitely not a story that lumbers out with the “Made in New Zealand” stamp on it.

An interesting story in that it doesn’t have a lot of focus, but seems to go along in a beguiling meander, is “The Last Life of Clarry”. It’s set in Sydney in the 1980s, and Simon is escaping New Zealand and an “average broken marriage”, and trying to write a novel. It’s a city story – and the kind that writers love to write: the isolate writer grappling with the work. For many writers it’s a subject that ends up embarrassingly narcissistic. But Stead is too expert a hand to get caught up in that silly bind. He sets out that lovely Sydney atmosphere, but is always the trenchant observer.

Of Australia, Simon says: “I’ve never known a country so bloated with self-regard.”

Simon has writer’s block and befriends his landlady’s dying husband, Clarry, an old digger who takes a shine to him. Simon places surreptitious bets on horses for Clarry, and the old man is concerned about Simon’s sex life. “So who are you rooting then?” he asks. Simon isn’t rooting anybody; so he goes up to the Cross for a browse and is tempted by a whore. But he fears Aids. He’d have to use a condom, but yes marked by his generation – “for too long he’s not used them – and he’s not sure his machinery would work anymore in one of those things”. But in a curious way, the concern and sex beliefs of the old man give Simon inspiration. They help get over his block; to get over his dead patch after his break-up. It’s an intriguing low-key story, leaving us with Simon figuring he might date Alice, Clarry’s daughter, if he can get over being intimidated by her blue-tinted glasses.

“A Short History of New Zealand” is even closer to home, and to an extent a vehicle for Stead’s fine and almost dreamy sense of nostalgia. A Kiwi expatriate journalist whys settled in England interviews a young female NZ writer for an English newspaper – about her novel, A Short History of New Zealand. The plot: a Pakeha cop chases a Maori intruder, who’s carrying a knife. There are miles of chase, mostly through countryside, and at times the pursuer becomes the pursued. Finally they reach the sea, and the final confrontation is left in the air . . . It’s an allegory of the Maori/Pakeha conflict throughout our history, and it’s a post-modern novel, containing the novelist’s account of the writing. The young writer is wary, defensive; the journalist attracted and antagonised. Then his mother dies, and he returns to New Zealand for the funeral. He’s been away a long time, and he’s back into the amazing rainy quiet of his childhood. And there, presumably in Auckland, he dreams of lunching with the young novelist again. She’s fluent in Maori now, and she turns her lunch knife menacingly over and over in her hand. Lots of counterpoints here: the pursuer and the victim; the expatriate and the native; the critic and the writer; the old generation and the precocious younger one. It’s a clever and seductive story that seems to house generational anger, and expatriate anger, at its heart.

I read “Figures of Speech” last. It’s a good story to go out on. Carlos the wimp (was such a term current in 1963?) is another Kiwi academic working in the UK. He falls under the spell of the dynamic and volatile American scientist Claudia Strange. As a young man he lives a forlorn love life on the edge of her life, but even then he’s inextricably tied up with her fate. It’s a dense and gripping story, very strong on motivations – viewed by the narrator thirty years on – and offering a convincing encapsulated history of a segment of the 60s.

I’m sure that these stories took a number of drafts, hard work and time, but they read as if they didn’t. They have a loose-limbed feel. And above all they’re permeated with that marvellous confidence and ease which gives a reader pleasure and satisfaction.

Stead is a determinedly international writer. The New Zealand experience of his characters is there as a touchstone, small, invariably nostalgic, but not much more. I find this release into the wider world refreshing. He’s left all those rain-filled childhoods for the rest of us to keep working through.

Norman Bilbrough is a Wellington writer.

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