Back to the 30s, Vincent O’Sullivan

Never a Soul at Home: New Zealand Literary Nationalism and the 1930s
Stuart Murray
Victoria University Press, $44.95,
ISBN 0 86473 341 0

An Englishman, teaching in Dublin, who takes our most carefully constructed decade, insinuates himself into one of our most revered literary assumptions, and tells us we’re not so much getting it wrong, as not looking at it closely enough to get it right. Is this asking for an ideological stoush, or isn’t it? As if roughing up one of our cherished pieties is somehow alright.

In a country where ideas can move at glacial speed, the lone figure with his blow-torch at the edge of the ice-face is a rare delight. Certainly Murray’s book engages, in a far more expansive way than has been done by any local scholar, with the question of what exactly was written here in the 30s, and how that decade’s writing consciously moved towards declaring ourselves more validly than up till then had been the case. The better the writing, so that orthodoxy goes, the more defining its nationalism. Sargeson emerges as prose’s enduring icon, Curnow as poetry’s, with a hefty second row of Glover and Mason and Fairburn, with Ursula Bethell as the encouraging mother-cum-club-patroness. Robin Hyde, alas, is the difficult girl who won’t hand round the oranges at half time, Eileen Duggan refuses even to watch the game but is off practising her Celtic reels, although little D’Arcy Cresswell might be given a bit of run in the Canterbury jersey. Mulgan has the pace, but, quite frankly, switches codes. Yet, as thousands of student essays still declare, “New Zealand literature, by and large, began with a small group in the 1930s.”

Stuart Murray has read widely, in archives and unpublished papers quite as much as in the printed texts, to establish his own perspective. He has no reason to promote any line of argument other than what seems the compelling one to arrive at after sifting the evidence. The line he does take leads on to a number of conclusions: that what we think was the 1930s was in fact not so much what happened at the time, but what the 40s and later revised the decade as doing; that a particular critical take, developed primarily by Curnow, and served by his own increasingly justified reputation, raised some writers rather higher than might have occurred without that sustaining hand, and demoted others that were intractable to his demands. While the contours of the 30s, so Murray argues, were far more complex, more diverse and contentious and interesting than the standard view of the founding fathers leaves room to accept.

Murray’s first chapter intelligently takes the official agenda of the 1940 Centennial as his starting point – the need of the country and its government to define themselves in a way that reflected a deep aspiration to be different, distinctive, more demonstrably independent than might have been thought possible until that magic figure of 100 rolled over. Time as well as distance now legitimated “New Zealandness”. As part of that centenary, Curnow, with a rapidly developing wiliness, wrote poems that now seem monumentally sceptical of the flags-and-streamers element of the celebrations. He evolved the “anti-myth”, as Murray calls it, to that other, more congratulatory myth that the populace took up and that the War very soon promoted.

Yet as Curnow’s scepticism fed the maturity of his own poetry, he also refined a critical stance which dominated how the 30s would be read for the next half century – the emerging triumph of literary nationalism. Murray’s point is that however attractive this construction might be, and however justified in terms of Curnow’s own pre-eminence, it reduced the rich complexity of 30s writing to a fairly basic “in” or “out” critical template. In particular, it obscured how the good writers of the period, without exception, developed through an absorption in what was going on in English or Irish or American writing at the same time, or shortly before. Especially, the intense and often dominant socialist allegiances in many of Curnow’s contemporaries were overwritten by his programme of emerging national identity. That programme was so skilfully manoeuvred that we still see the 30s as a concerted drive towards a national voice, to getting down at last, and for the first time, how we actually are.

Hence Curnow’s making so much more than now seems convincing of D’Arcy Cresswell, so often a compendium of self-stroking clap-trap, but whose obsessive rage with his country for not celebrating his genius could conveniently be fed into Curnow’s “anti-myth” of New Zealand being defined and spoken for even by a poet who fancied himself as far above the common herd as he was remote from 20th century living speech. Hence, as well, the need for what one might call the received standard version of the 30s to raise Sargeson’s quite meagre output from that decade to canonical status, on the grounds that it was so essentially “us”, while there was a corresponding need to deflate the vastly productive Robin Hyde, the New Zealand writer of her time most alert to the possibilities of modernism and formal experiment, as having little to do with the nationalist enterprise.

Murray is good on just how much has to be sidelined to make the nationalism label stick, and the extent to which politics needed to be played down. He approaches, but does not take as far as he might, that fascinating matter of how the political energy of Curnow’s own strongly conceived left-wing poetry in Tomorrow was then largely hived off into the satirical domain of Whim-Wham, while his “serious” poetry so effectively moved towards quite other concerns. Murray is never less than respectful to Curnow’s poetic achievement. His reservation is with the fact that to clear the ground for his own development, Curnow also cleared it for writers who had quite other intentions than himself. In particular, Curnow’s paradigm diminishes the international complexity his contemporaries were part of.

Early on in his study, Murray writes how “the New Zealand writers of the 1930s were necessarily engaging with a formation that had its roots very much within a European framework.” There is a constant and well-supported coincidence between what concerned writers in Britain, and what occupied writers here. Murray picks up from Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision that there was no cut-and-dried division between international socialism and its national application. The ties could be intricate and subtle, as well as obvious and straightforward. Where we are most in his debt, I believe, is at those points where he presses us to note what may have passed us by in the usual readings of some of these writers.

How much tougher Eileen Duggan is than I’d assumed – more alert, with Hyde, to Maori issues than any of her male compatriots, more considered in her Christian socialism than she is given credit for. How refreshing, too, to hear Mason’s Marxist plays defended on Mason’s own terms, validated by so much larger a framework than some assumed obligation to pick up local traces. There is no questioning that the poems are superior to the dramatic texts, but Murray’s case is not an aesthetic one. He moves the discussion to where Mason himself would consider its proper place, the fact that his plays exposed an audience to “a politicised and international element in the decade’s culture that remains largely unrecorded.”

It is this urging us to attend to a cultural milieu as a whole, and at least to query a long-hallowed critical directive that encourages us not to, that makes this study so valuable, whatever the tangle of specific judgements one might want to start trimming. For it is not only interesting, it is necessary to be reminded that Robin Hyde was so audaciously experimental, and certainly far better informed about the country she lived in, over far broader a spectrum, than any of her contemporaries. Quite sensibly, Murray is unimpressed by the macho prancing of Glover’s squibs against her, and is prepared to see her late fiction as perhaps the most original writing to come out of the 30s. He writes well in reminding us how that experimentalism and energetic refusal to be confined – the qualities postmodernists now eagerly claim for their own prescriptive ends – were precisely what excluded her from the nationalist fraternity. This could draw in Fairburn’s political eccentricity or Cresswell’s looniness, as it could Mason’s and Mulgan’s Left, but it could not accommodate what at the time was only regretted as a prolific waywardness.

In brief, this is a book brimming with ideas, provocations, demands that you step outside and grab the texts to back up your disagreement. I think Murray is quite wrong, for example, in converting Mulgan to ersatz-Englishman, for which there’s a wealth of contradictory evidence. I think his over-elaborate readings of short Sargeson pieces are wilfully baroque (although not as much so as some local academic twirls). But there are few pages that do not stimulate in some way. And his necessary presence on our shelves rather vividly declares what we haven’t put there ourselves.

Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection of poems, Seeing You Asked, was reviewed in our December 1998 issue and his most recent novel, Believers to the Bright Coast, is reviewed in this issue on p10. 

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Posted in Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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