Hard looks at a hard emotion, Sarah Quigley

New Zealand Love Stories
ed Fiona Kidman
Oxford University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 0 19 558399 X

There’s a line in Maurice Duggan’s story “Along Rideout Road That Summer” which could be blazoned across the cover of this new anthology. The narrator – a tough, casual, typically Dugganish character – is about to share his first experience of love with us. But, he warns us, “I’d not have you think we are here embarked on the trashy clamour of boy meeting girl.”

This, for me, summed up the tone of this intelligently compiled collection of “love stories”: no pulp romance here, but some hard looks at a hard emotion. And, in gathering together 38 samples of such a loosely defined fictional form, Kidman has set herself a hard task.

Anthologies often begin with an editorial justification – and rightly so. The very nature of the genre means that they run the risk of being as predictable and done-to-death as the cookbooks or sporting biographies we love to hate. New Zealand has always had a strange, self-conscious predilection for assessing how far it’s come, and our short past is already littered with anthologies aiming to prove just this.

To a certain extent Kidman follows this tradition. Her introduction includes both definition and defence. Pre-empting criticism of her selection, she defines the term “love story” in the widest possible sense: platonic love, familial love, erotic and same-sex and multi-cultural love. In terms of narrative voice, she states that her search was for a “common language” which would span generations. Her anthology covers over a century of writing; her initial requirement was simply that the authors “understand” the nature of love. And so Jane Mander sits with Janet Frame sits with Barbara Anderson. None seems out of place with the other – although under the wide umbrella of Kidman’s selection process almost all short fiction could be justifiably included.

The work is ordered chronologically in terms of each specific story rather than the dates of its author. Not surprisingly, it begins with a roll-call of expected names: Katherine Mansfield, Frank Sargeson, Dan Davin, James Courage. No anthology would be complete without these distinct voices, and diving back into their prose is – as always – both comforting and refreshing.

In tone and subject matter, many of the earlier stories are forerunners of their more recent counterparts. The bleakness of New Zealand fiction, so often commented on, is as evident in this anthology as any other: these are often empty, aching stories, speaking of subtly changed relationships and the illusory nature of love. Mansfield’s “The Stranger” tells of a close partnership soured by a single experience: the story’s chilling voice echoes still down the 80 years since its writing: “Spoilt their evening! Spoilt their being alone together! They would never be alone together again.”

Although Kidman includes all our major early writers, she deliberately avoids that comfort zone which traps similar anthologies into predictability. Casting her net widely, she has sought out work by lesser-known writers whose voices have been more usually heard in the non-fictional forms of diaries and letters.

H B Marriot Watson’s “Hand of God” is the first story in the book, and it opens appropriately with a journey from England to New Zealand. “Confirmed dipsomaniac” Richard Craven is determined to reform and “rid the earth of a brute-beast”; he settles on a back-country run, and against all odds attracts the love of a beautiful woman. The prose is purpleish at best, the tragedy tips into melodrama, but still the story stands as a perfect example of early colonial literature. Dated as it is, Watson’s foreboding description of the New Zealand landscape is strangely compelling: “What a terribly lonely, desolate place is the New Zealand bush! On all sides towered gigantic rimus and kaikateas… Stern black birches, gloomy matais, graceful pittospores loomed through the mist.” In this respect he foreshadows later male writers who often focus on external detail to convey an internal landscape.

Hard on the heels of “The Hand of God” comes the work of another early discovery of Kidman’s, Constance Clyde; and the two stories co-exist in pleasing contrast. In Clyde’s “The Man That Came Back”, the emphasis is firmly on the personal, and the tone is dry and quirky. The story of a supposedly neglected minister who leaves his “literary wife”, its tongue-in-cheek endorsement of female emancipation points the way to a long tradition of female writers from Jane Mander onwards:

The congregation of St Peter’s said that her conduct was certainly reprehensible … often and often he had come home tired and hungry to find the dinner uncooked. Then they sighed, and declared you couldn’t blame him; now, could you?

This is truly a comedy of manners; and its sentiments are played out decades later in Barbara Anderson’s “Commitment”:

— We are conditioned from birth! she says, wide-eyed as though she has just found this tablet new carved. — Fed myths. Maternal instinct for example. We have to get rid of these myths!

Although a stylistic change has clearly taken place, the wry, disenchanted tone displayed in both Clyde’s and Anderson’s writing surfaces again and again through the intervening decades. There is, too, an almost claustrophobic emphasis on the repressed New Zealand mindset, represented by suburban settings as in Jane Westaway’s “Be Mysterious”.

Interestingly, such narrowing of vision is mainly found in the stories by women. Male voices such as those of Maurice Duggan, Dan Davin and C K Stead stand out for their refreshing directness, and their altogether bigger backgrounds. Stead’s sharp and edgy “Sex in America” yokes together French and Californian lust, while in “Under the Bridge” Davin transports us to Crete. In this story his soldier finds and loses love, looking back to New Zealand while hardly daring to look forward into a uncertain, perilous future: “How long since I had seen and felt rain, refreshing rain not deadly, from grey unhurrying homely skies, not this lethal metallic rain?”

Back in the Antipodes, Duggan’s classic “Along Rideout Road That Summer” is superb in its evocation of a long summer and raw youth: “Silence. Light lovely and fannygold over the pasture; shreds of mist by the river deepening to rose. My father’s hard leather soles rattled harshly on the bare boards like rim-shots.”

While there is lyricism to spare in such writing, Janet Frame’s “The Pictures” (1951) is the first of the selected stories to display a newly fluid prose style. Able to be read over and over without a loss of impact, it blends simplicity with sophistication, and sums up that yearning for love which almost amounts to a faith. The woman in the story, taking her child to a film, sees on the big screen an all-encompassing promise: “It was the greatest love story ever told. It was Life and Love and Laughter, and Tenderness and Tears.” Confronted afterwards by “hard yellow daylight”, she is left with only the memory of the feeling of love, but her little girl tastes its anticipation still.

The central paradox of Frame’s story is paraphrased by a single phrase in Sargeson’s contribution, “An Affair of the Heart”. Musing on love, the narrator remarks: “I never understood … how anything in the world that was such a terrible thing, could at the same time be so beautiful.” Echoes such as this abound throughout Kidman’s anthology, and perhaps it is this which gives it such a feeling of cohesion. Emily Perkins’s moving story “Thinking About Sleep” was written long after both Sargeson’s and Frame’s, but it holds a similar mix of hope and despair. James Courage’s “Guest at the Wedding” reveals a slow awakening to gay love in the 1950s, while Peter Wells’s “Sweet Nothing” tells a similar story of possibility set in the 1990s. Such links are like a series of bridges spanning the pages of the book: you can cross and cross again, back and forwards between stories, with a real sense of discovery.

Perhaps the only imbalance in the book is one to which Kidman admits in her introduction: the under-representation of post-modernism. “Too many of the [post-modern] stories I considered,” she says, “lacked, in my view, a central commitment to passion.” Perhaps “passion” needs to be defined further; certainly, form is often seen as precluding emotion when in fact it is simply masking it. Interestingly, the examples Kidman does see fit to include are among the most powerful and moving in the book. Michael Harlow’s “Today is the Piano’s Birthday”, for example, is a piece which began life as a prose poem. Its musical quality makes it float on the page, while its cloudy heart is pure sentiment:

If we listen — we can hear mother call them, we can hear father enter the house, carefully. If we listen — we can hear the very first song the children sing, the very first dream the piano dreams … we can hear … mother and father touch each other with wonder …

Gregory O’Brien’s “Karminrosa” represents a similar fusion of stylised surface and emotional undertow. The story of an artist living in an inner-city studio, it is delicate, sure-footed, heartfelt:

Surveying an empty canvas, he sits balanced on the edge of a desk on the edge of a room balanced on the edge of a house on the edge of a park. He is a painter resting between paintings … One day the trustees will arrive to the sound of paint on canvas – the purple, orange and green sounds. But for now he is a painter resting between paintings.

Arresting fiction such as this – fluid and shifting, while never losing its central symbolic thread – is surely the future shape of this country’s literature. In light of its traditional and narrative focus, Kidman’s anthology looks more to where we have come from than where we’re heading. A textbook of the future? Quite possibly. Any comprehensive anthology should be a useful resource, and the introduction of this book alone gives a clear summary of our literary history. But it is also a collection of good quality fiction presented soundly and stylishly, and as such it sits comfortably in your hands, promising hours of good quality enjoyment.

Sarah Quigley’s novel After Robert was reviewed in our December 1999 issue; AUP New Poets, in which a selection of her poems appears, is reviewed on p12.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Short stories
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