The Big Room and Other Stories
O E Middleton
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877 22804 4
David Ling, $29.95,
ISBN 0 908 99056 1
These are collections of short stories by two of the old masters of New Zealand literature. O E Middleton’s The Big Room is his first publication of new work in two decades. Maurice Shadbolt’s Selected Stories is a retrospective of a long career and includes just one new work. Both collections have much to recommend them.
O E Middleton was one of the original “sons of Sargeson”. His writing began in the vernacular, social realist mode of the 1940s and collided, fruitfully, with Frank Sargeson’s influence. Though always his own man, Middleton’s style has never strayed far from the social realist school, and the stories in The Big Room are no exception. All of them take place in the 1940s and 1950s. They are essentially works of modernism, that urban, egghead style from the European café scene, which was adapted to the rural, inarticulate inhabitants of backblocks New Zealand – and skilfully adapted. As well as possessing an old master’s grasp of his technique, Middleton displays a knowledge of farming, sailing and fishing that is probably unrivalled in New Zealand literature. His rural characters act and think with the ring of authenticity. It is hard to imagine a younger, suburban generation of writers ever reproducing this sort of easy familiarity with the outdoor life and, increasingly, it is foreign territory for New Zealand readers.
But to suggest that there is something of the time-capsule about the stories in The Big Room is not really a criticism. Too many of the social realist stories published in the 1950s were overly earnest, didactic and dull, and it will only be an improvement if some are supplanted by the stories Middleton offers here. His better stories also give something of a contemporary perspective on old social realist concerns. Most memorable are perhaps the three linked stories with Maori main characters: “Manaakitanga: Hospitality”, “Tangata Whenua: People of the Land” and “Manako: Longing”. These all take place on a farm owned by the Pakeha Fortnum family, but they centre on the lives of the Maori farm-hands who do most of the hard work.
“Manaakitanga” offers a chilling account of Tai and his father, Rewi, spreading superphosphate by hand – and no doubt taking years off their lives. Yet, by using Maori medicine, they assist a Pakeha visitor’s daughter who has cut her foot, for which they receive scant thanks. The story illustrates the greater scale of suffering in the Maori world compared with that of the Pakeha, and it offers a very contemporary emphasis on the separateness of these worlds. “Tangata Whenua” extends this idea when a kehua, a ghost, causes illness in two Maori people on the farm: Tai and Ripeka, Des Fortnum’s wife. Although he has no feeling for Maoritanga, Des Fortnum fetches a tohunga to save his wife, and the story closes with his acceptance that his land and children may blend back into Maori culture. This may even turn out to be prophetic if demographics a century from now reduce Pakeha to a minority group, as they might. Nevertheless, the framework of European culture is not easily ignored. “Manako” describes the impact of the Second World War in Europe on Maori lives and the growth of the mythology surrounding the Maori Battalion. By the story’s close, both Rewi and Tai have joined up to fight in a Pakeha war but do so, paradoxically, to assert their identity as Maori.
The difficulty with stories that focus on psychology rather than plot, using impersonal narration and indirect forms of revelation, is the restriction all this places on the author’s ability to project a message. It was something the avowedly socialist writers of the mid-century had to wrestle with. The Maori-theme stories in The Big Room have tensions and ambiguities playing out in ways that allow Middleton to make his points, but the other stories in the collection display a tendency towards didacticism, usually in an awkward summary on the last page. It’s a pity, but the weakness may be inherent to the form rather than the author.
Half of Middleton’s book is taken up by the novella entitled “The Big Room”. It describes the lives of men held in a detention centre in San Francisco after the war, as they wait for deportation. Middleton draws on real experience, since he was once deported from the United States after attempting to gain entry for medical treatment. “The Big Room” is told from various points of view, but in order to have articulate narrators, Middleton has to stay mostly with the educated, white detainees. His Mexican and Asian characters remain mostly unknowable others, although their activities form the bulk of the action. It’s an interesting story, mainly because all the characters seem to share something with Middleton himself. For that reason it may improve in memoir form, and no doubt Middleton’s experiences will appear in his forthcoming autobiography. That book should prove a publishing event.
Maurice Shadbolt was famously attacked by Sargeson and his circle after the publication of his first story collection, The New Zealanders, in 1959. As a result, he was outside the mainstream of New Zealand fiction writing for years. Why did Sargeson attack him? The root cause was probably jealousy, but there may also have been literary reasons. This publication of Shadbolt’s Selected Stories, with a useful and meticulous introduction by Ralph Crane, provides an opportunity to look at Shadbolt’s development. The book reveals a short-story writer whose achievements are as considerable as his successes as a novelist.
Shadbolt’s early stories display a strong visual sense, a gift for storytelling and narrative drive, and a tremendous fluency that at times leads to poor lines. The opening sentence of the first story from The New Zealanders in this selection, “After the Depression”, makes this clear: “The night had come and almost gone again; now, when the rough sweep of his large hand gashed the mist of the carriage window, he was able to see, beyond steep-yellow clay cuttings crested with damp green bush, the brightening grey of the morning sky.” It is, understandably, the product of a self-consciously literary young writer. Its main weakness is that there is too much crammed in. The word “gashed”, though clever, draws undue attention to itself.
Sargeson was an essentially poetic writer. His method of reading manuscripts by his “sons” was to go through and look for bum lines. For him, Shadbolt was an easy writer to dismiss. It would never have occurred to Sargeson that the presence of one weak sentence does not devalue the many other, fine sentences in “After the Depression”. The story is about a man bringing his family, literally, to the end of the railway line in order to find a job. However, his past as a political agitator catches up with him and he is refused work. He and his family are trapped in their own depression by a narrow society. But there is, especially from a contemporary perspective, something of blind stubbornness in the way the man clings to his uncompromising beliefs at the story’s close, even though this damages the family he is supposed to provide for. “After the Depression” is an admirable story, balancing a political message and human concerns in a New Zealand context. It’s amazing that Sargeson could not see its promise; but, above all, he applied standards to the young Shadbolt that he did not demand from his own struggling protegés.
The weakest stories in the selection from The New Zealanders are those where Shadbolt drops his storytelling voice and attempts to be a regular modernist, offering revelation through passages of dialogue or characters’ psychology. These can seem melodramatic – again, an easy target for Sargeson’s circle. But the stories from Shadbolt’s second collection, Summer Fires and Winter Country, display a remarkable development. The standout work is “Ben’s Land”. Ralph Crane details how it became an ur-text for several of Shadbolt’s later books, but even today it deserves classic status. In twenty pages Ben tells the story of the generations of his family: great-grandfather Benjamin, grandfather Benjamin and Uncle Ben. These are engaging, somewhat larger-than-life characters whose relationship to the land they settle is crucial to their existence. The story’s style is suitably robust. It is told with a terrific sense of pace and verve that owes something to a good yarn, not usually the basis for New Zealand fiction. And there is humour – another element often ignored by New Zealand writers. As the narration moves to Uncle Ben’s failed return to the land and untimely death, a well-realised picture of Auckland and its surroundings appears in the background. “Ben’s Land” was perhaps as revolutionary among the predominantly social realist New Zealand writing of the time as was Maurice Duggan’s “Along Rideout Road that Summer”. It was a tragedy that its merits were not more widely accepted.
None of the other stories selected from Summer Fires and Winter Country quite matches “Ben’s Land” for vivacity, but all take advantage of the technical breakthrough that it represents. Stories like “The Wind and the Spray”, “Homecoming” and “Neither Profit Nor Salvation” have so much going on in them that they could easily be expanded into novels. They explore a theme that is ubiquitous in Shadbolt’s short fiction: Pakeha New Zealanders coming to terms with their new country. To achieve this, many of the stories use Maori characters as a foil for Pakeha complacency and ignorance. The most direct example is “The People Before”, where a group of Maori arrive on a farm to visit their ancestral land, and Shadbolt examines the reactions of the Pakeha farm-owners. In all of these stories Shadbolt’s touch is sure. His style has matured and, significantly, the weak sentences are gone.
Two stories have been selected from Shadbolt’s third collection, The Presence of Music, and these build on the advances of Summer Fires and Winter Country. Both introduce a new concern: the role of the artist-figure in New Zealand society. They are set in the city, but both remain essentially about fitting in. The introduction of artist-figures allows for the Maori foils to be discarded and for Shadbolt to focus on the lives of contemporary, suburban Pakeha. “The Voyagers” contrasts artistic success, which comes from overseas, with the worldly comforts of the New Zealand middle-class. In “Figures in Light” the artistic Ruth and her middle-class brother try to come to terms with each other, and with the dangerous mutual repulsion and attraction that they feel. Both are superb, subtle stories. They gain from an increased willingness by Shadbolt to explore each avenue in them, so that they open out into novellas. The novella is an awkward form, too long to anthologise, too short to publish alone, and so for merely practical reasons these near-masterpieces have been under-appreciated.
The collection Dove on the Waters was well received on its publication in 1996. The title story, selected here, is another gem with the liveliness of “Ben’s Land”. It is a late work, inasmuch as it plays ironic games with the themes of Shadbolt’s earlier fiction. Walter Dove gets back to the land on a boat. His voyage of discovery scarcely takes him out of Waitemata Harbour. His sense of the past is gloriously mingled with sheer fantasy. The same kind of irony occurs in the book’s final and previously uncollected story, “The Simple Life”. Retreat to a commune by Don Fox and his friends results in their being kicked off the land. A missionary tries to pacify the land’s occupant, Eddie Moorehouse, who is an artist of sorts. Eddie seems to alternate between the roles of interloper and native. This is game-playing at its most delicious, the sort of thing that could only be managed by an author with a secure oeuvre behind him and a familiarity with the mythology of Pakeha settlement. There may be a lot of late Shadbolt still to come.
Ian Richards is a New Zealand writer and critic currently living in Japan.