The hidden Hyde, Chris Prentice

The Book of Nadath
Robin Hyde (ed Michele Leggott)
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 86940 191 3

We are at another of the threshold times that punctuate historical consciousness, when we look back, take stock, and, through the inevitable process of re-vision, equip ourselves to move into the future. It is 60 years since the death of Robin Hyde; like all anniversaries, this is marked in the dual gesture of looking back to the significance of her work, and forward to the shape of a national literary history that includes the act of commemoration.

Both backward- and forward-looking movements are to be found in the 1937 prose poem, The Book of Nadath. Written in “verses” somewhat in the biblical sense (though “more elevated”, according to Hyde herself), and with distinctly Nietzschean moments, its voice is by turns reflective and prophetic, and yet the essence of the present – hers, its, ours – is definitive. Robin Hyde was a writer consistently tuned into her moment – personally, nationally, internationally, and the links between these – yet the resonances of Nadath are at times uncannily contemporary. Nadath is a prophet, possibly also a false prophet, whose name echoes the Spanish word for “nothing” and the sweetness of the plant nard. Its themes are variously public and loud, political and urgent, personal and intimate. Sometimes these overlay each other palimpsestically.

Born Iris Wilkinson in 1906, Hyde produced her extensive body of published writing in the ten-year span between her first book of poetry, The Desolate Star (1929), and Dragon Rampant, recording her experiences in China, published shortly before her early death in 1939. The gender-neutral pen-name Robin Hyde was that of her first son, who died in infancy. While Hyde was one of the few women accorded a place in New Zealand’s 1930s literary scene, and in the literary historiography concerning the period, this place has often been ambivalent, predicated on the works which came closest to the prevailing masculine nationalism.

The realism of her “Starkie” novels, Passport to Hell (1936) and Nor the Years Condemn (1938), about First World War soldier Douglas Stark, caused reviewers to assume that Robin Hyde had “himself” served at the front line. Its less conventionally realist passages were regarded as “lapses”, and those novels written largely outside the realist conventions were castigated. Wednesday’s Children (1937) was condemned in review as “fantasy without ballast” – an accusation tantamount to one of literary and cultural treason.

Ironically, while the male writers of the period were lambasting New Zealand puritanism, Hyde herself was a voice against that same puritanism: but while the male writers identified women with many of its destructive values, Hyde’s voice against puritanism’s suspicion of art, and rejection of the artist and indeed the “misfit”, focused especially on the plight of women, and the woman artist. This seems ballast enough to her times, but Hyde’s writing has always worked on numerous levels at once. If (male) critics failed to recognise the use of fantasy as a “place” from which to comment on the placeless woman artist, they must also have missed it as a means of commenting on the local and international culture and politics of her time more generally.

It is now often remarked that there has been a revival of interest in her work: what with student theses, the existence of a Marsden Fund project drawing together various components including a “Collected Poems”, and the September 1999 Association of New Zealand Literature conference on “Sargeson, Hyde, and the Beginnings of New Zealand Fiction”.

On the one hand, the term “revival” risks obliterating a presence in the very celebration of its reappearance; it overlooks continuity of concern and activity. Any “renewal” must be tied to some extent to the availability of the works in print, and these have been steadily reprinted from 1970, with the Auckland University Press edition of The Godwits Fly, edited and introduced by Gloria Rawlinson, to the 1995 first publication of The Victory Hymn, 1935-1995, edited and introduced by Michele Leggott, and culminating – so far – in the publication of Leggott’s edition of The Book of Nadath.

On the other hand, and as a result of the new editions of Hyde’s works, with their scholarly and critical introductions, the interest in her work is also connected with a process of renewal. It is part of a larger project of re-thinking the 1930s, often identified as the era definitive of New Zealand literary nationalism, but whose exclusions and biases have become more evident with the greater range of critical perspectives being brought to it. It is in this context that Hyde’s name is self-evidently there
with Sargeson’s at the ANZL exploration of “beginnings”.

The Book of Nadath has been painstakingly researched, reconstituted out of manuscript and typescript fragments, edited and introduced by Michele Leggott. Herself a remarkable poet as well as a scholar, Leggott argues that Hyde’s poetry is as worthy of note as her fiction; indeed Hyde’s contemporaries saw her primarily as a poet, even if she became less recognised as such as a result of Curnow’s judgement of her early work, and the (mis)placement of her with the reviled “feminine” Georgian poets. Hyde herself privileged her poetry over her other writing. Leggott has been important among those generating and sustaining the intensification of interest in Hyde’s work. As co-editor of a collection of essays, Opening the Book: New Essays on New Zealand Writing, (1995), Leggott’s own contribution, “Opening the Archive: Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and the Persistence of Record”, exemplifies the spirit of the revision, by way of attention to the margins, of New Zealand literary history. In this essay, she asks with respect to Hyde, “Why are we so slow to read the poet who most disrupts the orthodoxy set up by the contents and introduction of A Book of New Zealand Verse, 1923-1945?”

In Leggott’s detailed bibliographical introduction, the story of The Book of Nadath is replete with the intrigue of textual detection and rebuilding out of the fragments bequeathed by manuscript and typescript versions, held variously in archives and private collections, by friends and literary executors. The process is dogged by gaps, and also by interventions, and not least by the questions and uncertainties that surrounded Hyde’s sometimes troubled life and the circumstances of her death. There are different versions of the poem, of different lengths; many questions remain unresolved and the poem itself incomplete.

However, Leggott has worked meticulously to keep as close to Hyde’s intended version as possible. She provides a detailed editorial apparatus, a note on the text, and copious notes to each section of the poem, tracing sources, and pointing to relationships of this to Hyde’s other work and her life, as well as to the works of a vast range of other writers and literary, cultural, and historical references. This text is many-in-one, and the observation that concludes the introduction, that “There are always two versions”, itself has multiple resonances.

There are also at least two readings, one which attends to the notes and sources Leggott has provided, and is thus enriched by an appreciation of the place of this work within Hyde’s densely (inter)textured oeuvre, and another which chooses to be spoken to directly. In the first case, we can take the “verse” from the section entitled “The Time Servers”, which says “I am left desolate in the wake of a world, and standing alone / before the closed door of another. For I cannot imagine beauty /  except in freedom, and freedom lies neither in victory nor a banner of conquest”, and hear echoes of the well-known passage from her autobiographical essay, A Home in this World, published posthumously by her son Derek Challis (1984): “It seems to me now that I am caught in the hinge of a slowly-opening door, between one age and another. Between the tradition of respectability … and the new age, foretold by Nietzsche and some others.” But Leggott described herself in “Opening the Archive” as “moving by a kind of textual infra-red, looking for places that make light of historical distance, or heat up connections to the present”, and for me, the verse has as much to say about certain paradoxes of our contemporary cultural moment.

Today’s reader will find both familiar and remote landscapes, times, and people; will recognise the Iron Child, and the “criers of causes”; will be moved and shocked by the persistence – the complications of endurance – of vexed questions of race, culture, sex, and power; haunted by the echoes in lines from “The Men in the Tower”: “Nadath says: It is a time of much knowledge, but little wisdom: / of much might, but little power”; and by those from “The Time-Servers”: “Beware how you trust a time-server with the things of eternity: / beware how you put your truth between a liar’s lips … / But a liar, ere his loud talking be done, shall make you hate even / your truth”.

There are always two versions; there will be many more readings.

Chris Prentice teaches in the English Department at the University of Otago.

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