“More or less lovely”, Owen Marshall

To bed at noon: the life and art of Maurice Duggan
Ian Richards
Auckland University Press $49.95
ISBN 1 86940159 X

There was a changing of the guard in New Zealand literature in the seventies and eighties, and one sign of it is the recent appearance of several important biographies: Frank Sargeson: A Life by Michael King, A Fighting Withdrawal: the Life of Dan Davin by Keith Ovenden, and now Ian Richards’ fine account of Maurice Duggan.

I do not intend this review to become a consideration of the relative merits of the three books, but all cast some light from different vantages on the same people, and the Sargeson and Duggan biographies have an almost interchangeable cast of literary characters. This comes as no surprise: both Sargeson and Duggan lived in Auckland for most of their lives; they shared a passion for writing and had mutual friends; the older man was for long the mentor of the younger.

One of the interesting and valuable contributions that Ian Richards book makes is to flesh out some less well-known members of the Auckland literary circle, people rather insubstantial in other accounts, but who were more closely connected with Duggan. Greville Texidor is a case in point. An exotic figure on the periphery of earlier stories, here her life, which ended in suicide, is given more space, and we are able to perceive her better as writer and individual.

Richards’ biography is also true to label – the life and art of his subject. I would have taken this as an assumed virtue, had I not recently been greatly disappointed in W S Gilberts Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter, in which the private life of the adult Potter is in fact virtually ignored. I do not find Richards’ discussion of Maurice Duggan’s writing offers new insights, but it is ample and knowledgeable, and well relates to the life experience and personality which are the book’s main concern.

Duggan had an unattractive side which was magnified by alcohol, depression, serious physical illness and disability. He lacked Sargesons generosity of spirit and time for fellow writers, his brilliance as raconteur was often driven by a competitive ego; he could be bombastic, rude to others but exquisitely sensitive of slight himself, and selfishly indulgent in his own lifestyle while expecting other people to accommodate to it at great cost to themselves.

Yet who would not have been embittered by the blows that fate dealt him, the greatest being the loss of his left leg to osteomyelitis when he was seventeen. Richards is excellent in detailing the ongoing physical and psychological trauma caused by the amputation. Years after the operation the stump was still prone to bleeding and infection: the mental rawness persisted even longer. Friends and acquaintances knew never to refer to his handicap, and when Dan Davin’s youngest child drummed playfully on Duggans prosthesis, he was speechless with anger.

Duggan is seen these days as one of our masters of the short story: a writer who chose the form to capture the allusive density, the stylistic elegance, the scrupulous attention to detail, which marked his writing. But Richards makes clear that a good deal of Duggan’s writing time was spent in an often despairing effort to write a significant novel, and that his stories were sometimes salvaged from these attempts. He tinkered with the manuscript of The Burning of Miss Bratty for years, but was unable to complete it. The short story proved to be Duggan’s natural genre, but he was slow to recognise that, and ever reluctant to be confined to it.

Also illuminating, and well dealt with in the biography, is that later period in Duggan’s life when he gave priority to full-time work in advertising. Already sensitive about his masculine image – his inability to serve in the war for example – Duggan felt guilt and frustration during the long periods of financial dependence on his long-suffering wife, Barbara. To find that he had administrative business skills and a creative flair in advertising was satisfying to him in various ways. Not only was the money “more or less lovely”, as he said, but his success brought a degree of status and power within a community new to him. “When I say jump, they jump,” he told his friend Keith Sinclair. And he was able to achieve results in business more reliably than he could push forward his writing.

All this had a heavy price, however, not just for Duggan personally, but perhaps for New Zealand literature in general. He wrote little and withdrew somewhat from the literary life and literary friends. He was aware of the talent he was squandering, and was often contemptuous of the advertising profession, yet reluctant to give it up. The dilemma was one of those things driving him into self-destructive drinking. One can understand why Duggan spent so much of himself in advertising, and sympathise with him. Keith Ovenden’s book makes clear that Dan Davin, though less wracked, faced something of the same dilemma – but in the end the fact remains that Sargeson and Frame stayed true to their literary vocation, and Maurice Duggan did not. It is not for us to make any judgement on him for that: just to feel the loss.

Richards has a poignant anecdote concerning a literary evening at Sargeson’s place in Esmonde Road, Takapuna. Duggan was in full and dominating verbal flight, when Frame quietly got up and left to continue work on Owls Do Cry. Duggan was furious, but beneath the slight he felt must have been his realisation that hers was the activity of lasting significance that night.

Duggan, Glover, Davin, Morrieson, all bested by the drink they loved, and the list can easily be lengthened. Richards examines Duggan’s sad history excellently in this respect: the all-too-familiar trail from conviviality, release and good cheer to prop, dependence, denial, guilt, and damage to self and others. I wonder if the creative temperament is particularly susceptible to alcoholism, or if its toll is being exacted throughout society, but only draws attention amongst our notables?

What of quibbles concerning Ian Richards’ book? I do think that particularly in the earlier part he tends towards the “scorched-earth” school of biographers, taking in the results of research indiscriminately. Is it useful to know that the birth of Duggan’s father was assisted by a woman who could not write, or be given a lengthy paragraph about “Old Bird” Hewlett, a childhood acquaintance of Barbara Duggan’s who plays no part in the biography? Such marginal detail seems the more marked when more pertinent elaboration is missing – Duggan’s grades for the university papers towards his uncompleted degree for example, which may, or may not, support Richards’ assertion that Duggan would have made a superb academic lecturer.

Richards writes well, but his style doesn’t quite match the combination of precision and ease consistently attained by Michael King. Occasionally the language seems overly formal, even stilted. Mary Duggan “presented Robert Duggan with her only son on 25 November 1922” we are told, and when some years later Mary died suddenly in a neighbour’s house while that neighbour was making her a cup of tea, Richards’ sentence is, “She was discovered dead when Mrs Hand came back with the ready cup.”

There is too a lack of candour in the account of Duggan’s relationship with women friends, but with their privacy to be considered, Richards’ justification in the Introduction that “propriety makes its claims” is perhaps understandable. In general, I suspect that propriety as a principle in the writing of biography tends to inhibit both honesty and interest.

But these are quibbles, and do not substantially affect the achievement. Ian Richards obviously has much sympathy for the gifted writer who is his subject, and the biography is not only a fit tribute to Maurice Duggan, but a testimony to Richards’ own dedication, and a significant contribution to New Zealand literary scholarship. Duggan was a man of powerful presence, fluent speech, subtle understanding, and outstanding talents, but he was so sorely wounded that life was difficult enough, and writing more so. His oeuvre is small therefore, but it will persist within our literature. Intellectual in the best sense, his writing provides an alternative view to the simplistic yarns so prevalent in our popular literature. It is seldom a comforting vision, for as Lawrence Jones has said, “in Duggan’s world life is always painful, not least for those who see most”. We can enjoy this substantial biography knowing that the run continues – Michael King is at work on the life of Janet Frame, Vincent OSullivan on that of John Mulgan, others are in preparation. New Zealand is in the midst of a flowering of literary biography. Henry James, in reference to the past, spoke of “the irresistible reconstruction, to the all too baffled vision, of irrevocable presences and aspects, the conscious, shining, mocking void, sad somehow with excess of serenity.” Most of us find fascination in the life of others, and in the riddle of time: a biography combines the pleasures of both.

Owen Marshall is one of New Zealands foremost fiction writers. In 1997 his collected stories were published by Vintage.

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