Imaginative “factionality”, Lawrence Jones

Talking About O’Dwyer
C K Stead
Penguin Books, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 028839 2

When C K Stead delivered his paper “Narrativity, or the Birth of the Story” at the AULLA Conference in Dunedin in February 1993, he received probably the strongest response he had had since he attacked the holy writ of the New English Syllabus in an address to the New Zealand Association of Teachers of English in 1982. This time the holy writ was post-structural literary theory, and his paper was taken by the assembled literary academics as a  redneck attack on Barthes, Foucault, et al. The voices of strong men and women quavered with passion as they defended the Word against Stead’s provocative heresy. Certainly Stead was having a go in rather simplistic terms at the “death of the author” theory, typical of his attacks on various contemporary intellectual orthodoxies and sacred cows, but in retrospect the address is significant more as a statement of his narrative loyalties as novelist than as a declaration of his theoretical base as critic.

In typically clear and explicit fashion, he set out the “broad impulses, or inclinations, or directions” which drove his practices as a novelist: (1) a desire to “keep the writing at some distance from what” he had “always thought of  … as ‘conventional fiction’”; (2) “a love of narrative, and of narrative complexity”; (3) a desire to “keep open and faintly ambiguous the degree to which what is offered can be seen as ‘true’”, aimed at “heightening the consciousness about the nature of language and reality”; and (4) a desire to “remain at a careful distance from the realist tradition” but not “to cut [himself] entirely adrift from it”. His career as a fiction writer clearly reveals these loyalties, but with the relative importance of different impulses varying from time to time so that reviewers, especially early in the process, tended to misread him or to place him in too limiting a context.    

When his first novel, Smith’s Dream, appeared in 1971 it looked like a oncer: Stead’s response to the Vietnam War (mixed with memories of the 1951 Waterfront Strike) and his tribute to and partial demythologising of Man Alone. He was thought of as a poet-critic who occasionally wrote fiction, an impression not changed by the appearance of Five for the Symbol in 1981, a collection of five novellas and short stories originally published between 1960 and 1980. However, when All Visitors Ashore came out in 1984, followed by The Death of the Body in 1986, it became clear that Stead was using the time opened up first by a writing fellowship and then by his early retirement from the academic world to focus more on fiction; and with Sister Hollywood in 1989 he became what he referred to ironically in All Visitors Ashore as “a fully paid-up novelist”. The irony in this context was because Stead was pointing to the conventions of traditional realism (which he usually associates with the work of Maurice Shadbolt, as is evident in “Narrativity”) and was indicating that he was not going to use them.

By 1990 there could be no doubt that Stead was committed to writing fiction, and Mark Williams chose him as one of the significant novelists of the 1980s for discussion in his Leaving the Highway. However, his avowed revolt against the conventions of traditional realism led some other critics and reviewers to place him as postmodern or even as anti-narrative. But such critical responses overemphasised Stead’s metafictionality and his reaction against Shadboltian conventions at the expense of his genuine love of the pleasures of narrative and his modernist desire to get “nearer to reality”, the psychological-experiential “reality” of modernism rather than the distanced, rationalist “reality” of traditional realism.


In the process of expressing his “impulses” in his fiction, Stead has evolved a Stead model for the novel or novella that is as recognisable as, but very different from, the Maurice Gee model; and Talking About O’Dwyer, his eighth novel and tenth book of fiction, fits into that model easily, exhibiting most of the usual characteristics. First, there is the academic-literary protagonist, with a narrative emphasis on his amatory affairs, past and/or present. He first appeared as Curl Skidmore (divided between the young actor and the older narrator) in All Visitors Ashore, then as Harry Butler (augmented by Phil, the writer-narrator) in The Death of the Body, becoming Bill Harper in Sister Hollywood, transposed into the literary-minded politician Dan Cooper in The End of the Century, then into the historian Hugh Grady in The Singing Whakapapa  in 1994, and Stan Jenson in Villa Vittoria  in 1997 (American, but sharing Stead’s belief that much contemporary literary theory is “rubbish … crap, the death of good prose and the poisoning of poetry”).

In Talking About O’Dwyer he becomes Oxford philosopher Mike Newall, an expert on Wittgenstein, and knowledgeable enough in relation to women that by the end he remains on good terms with Gillian (his academic English ex-wife), and Marica (his Dalmatian-New Zealander ex-lover), carries on an intermittent affair with Ira (an intelligent, sexy and outspoken Croatian journalist 20 years his junior), and is able to involve all of them together in his expedition to Crete (along with Camille, the widow of Donovan O’Dwyer, and Ljuba, Marica’s aunt and widow of Joe Panapa, the Maori soldier O’Dwyer killed in the war). At the end Newall, accompanied only by his friend, the aging retired academic Bertie Winterstoke, is surrounded by approving women.

Those women fill another crucial role in the Stead model – that of the attractive, strong, intelligent woman the academic protagonist is drawn to, often beds, but seldom satisfactorily captures. Earlier examples include Patagonia Aorewa De Thierry Bennett, whom Curl loves and loses; Harry’s student lover and his rather kookie wife, and narrator Phil’s Danish Uta, his muse; Bill Harper’s Auckland Edie become Hollywood Arlene, sister not lover; Dan’s Laura, the writer-figure in The End of the Century; Hugh’s student ex-lover and her daughter; and Stan’s academic wife and his journalist lover Miranda.

These relationships take place in a variety of vividly-realised settings. Auckland and Northland are home or the place of origin in all of the novels except Villa Vittoria. This New Zealand is usually contrasted to Europe. In All Visitors Ashore all of the characters except Curl leave for there, and in The Singing Whakapapa the ancestors all come from there, while in most of the other novels substantial parts of the action take place in cities in Europe which readers of Stead’s essays and poetry will recognise – London, Rapallo, Stockholm, Copenhagen (the short fiction adds the South of France), or in Los Angeles or even (in the Alban Ashtree short stories in The Blind Blonde With Candles In Her Hair of 1998) in midwestern Canada, or in Sydney. Talking About O’Dwyer takes this process further, for while the past is mostly set in the usual Auckland and Northland, Crete also figures strongly in 1941, as it does in a narrative present that moves there and to Croatia from an Oxford base, while France and the eastern United States also figure. All of these places are evoked with the rich sensory detail that characterises Stead’s fiction.

The multiple spatial settings are paralleled by the multiple temporal ones, another recurring feature of Stead’s fiction. In All Visitors Ashore the time moved back and forth between 1951 and 1981, and Sister Hollywood similarly juxtaposed those decades, while The End of the Century juxtaposed the alternative 1970s to the 1990 election year. The Singing Whakapapa is the most complex in this respect, playing off the 1830s and 40s against the 1990s, but with further excursions into Hugh’s past (especially the 1960s) and his family history over several generations; while Villa Vittoria is set in the 1990s but looks back as far as the 1960s for three of its major characters. These multiple time levels allow Stead to place his characters within significant historical and social events and movements: the missionaries and the Treaty; the Waterfront Strike; the Un-American Activities Committee Hollywood hearings; the anti-Vietnam demonstrations; the sexual and feminist revolutions; the rise of the drug culture; and the actions of British intelligence units in the later Cold War.


Talking About O’Dwyer likewise shows this temporal and historical complexity, as Mike’s stories, memories and investigations range from the present in the 1990s, including the war in Croatia and the remnants of the Fascist past in Italy, back to World War II in Auckland in Mike’s childhood and on Crete in battle, to the 1950s at the University of  Auckland, and to 1967 in New Jersey and Washington DC during the Pentagon anti-Vietnam demonstrations. The curves of time between these selected moments are implicit so that there is a suggestive sense of the full pattern of Mike’s childhood and adolescence, his academic career, and his marriage, although the last is perhaps the most sketchily shown, with a disagreement in 1967 serving to indicate the differences that would finally break up the marriage 25 years later.

These differing chronological levels are necessary for the elements of puzzle, secrecy and mystery found in varying degrees in most of the plots: in All Visitors Ashore the 1951 “political underground” and the “underground” abortion; in The Death of the Body, the death of Jason and the mysteries of the drug underground, Harry’s “secret” affair that becomes public, and the identity of the narrator; in Sister Hollywood, the disappearance of Edie; in the Canadian stories, the disappearance of Alban Ashtree; in The End of the Century, the mystery of Hilda Tapler and Katherine Mansfield in the past; in The Singing Whakapapa, the death of Tarore in the past, the identity of Jean-Anne in the present;  in Villa Vittoria, the picture of Calvino and its mysterious significance. Sometimes Stead plays with these mysteries and secrets, as in All Visitors Ashore; sometimes they are in the background, as in the End of the Century; sometimes they are foregrounded, most notably in Villa Vittoria, which is something of a romance-thriller (and, significantly, is being prepared for filming). Always Stead is appealing to a love of narrative complication, and this is also the case in Talking About O’Dwyer, where the mystery of the death of Joe Panapa is at the heart of the plot, linking past to present, Maori to Pakeha to Croatian, Crete to New Zealand and England and Croatia, and O’Dwyer to Mike. The full uncovering of the mystery in the past, taking place in an advancing narrative present, gives the novel considerable narrative impetus.

Perhaps the most notable element in the Stead model is the way that these multi-layered plots turning on mysteries combine history and fiction, blurring the line between them, most famously in the use of Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame as models for Melior Farbro and Cecelia Skyways in All Visitors Ashore and in the adaptation of the Mervyn Thompson affair in The Death of the Body. The uses made of Stead’s own family history in The Singing Whakapapa and of something of his career in Sister Hollywood, the transposition of the London writers’ flat issue in The End of the Century, and the use of Ezra Pound’s time in Rapallo (the subject of some of Stead’s literary research) in Villa Vittoria, are also important to those novels.

This imaginative “factionality” is crucial to Talking About O’Dwyer, for in a sense the entire novel could be said to emerge from what must have been an early decision to cross the life of Dan Davin and the war experience of Major Humphrey Dyer in the character of Donovan O’Dwyer, a brilliant piece of literary hybridisation. On the one hand, there is the “fighting withdrawal” of Davin’s brilliant but disappointing career  – the expatriation from New Zealand and the adaptation to Oxford, the military experience in the New Zealand Division, the successful and yet finally disappointing and anticlimactic career at Oxford, the legendary drinking, the love affairs within a stable marriage, the charismatic quality and the gift for friendship and for inspiring loyalty. On the other hand, there is the story of the death of Parata Heta Thompson in Crete and the possibly partly apocryphal story of Dyer’s part in it. By taking that Thompson-Dyer story, possibly adding the element of a makutu cast on the officer, and grafting it to the Davin story as an “explanation” for the expatriation and the career, Stead created a strong hybrid narrative core for his novel. It is a brilliant narrative manoeuvre, completed by having Mike grow up in Panapa’s Henderson, observe the makutu through his adolescent friendship with Joe’s nephew, and become an academic at O’Dwyer’s Oxford.


Another element in the Stead model evident in Talking About O’Dwyer is the mode of telling, using elements of the traditional realist method but in such a way as to call attention to the narrativity. In the metafictional games in All Visitors Ashore and The Death of the Body, Stead had pushed his play with narrative conventions to the limit, while he had played less foregrounded variations in most of the other novels, and in Villa Vittoria had taken his narrative more or less straight. In this most recent novel, the reflexivity comes in the way in which, as the title implies, the recently dead O’Dwyer is never present but is only talked about  and finally recreated by Mike in telling his story to Bertie, with Mike fitting in the final pieces in the serial process of telling as he gets access to documents and memories.

All these elements of the Stead model are, of course, at the service of his perversely dialectic intelligence. Many of the usual Stead themes thread through Talking About O’Dwyer: the sexual politics so disliked by feminist critics; the concern for Maori-Pakeha relations and the unapologetic adoption of a liberal Pakeha perspective minus liberal guilt (the young Mike wins Marica at the expense of her half-Maori cousin Frano, who is clearly jealous of and even drawn to him); the acceptance of an atheistic naturalism, with sex retained as a central experiential value, but with no transcendent spiritual status; the existential insistence on consciousness as the core of human identity in an unconscious universe; and the concern with story-telling as a means of interpreting experience.

Talking About O’Dwyer, then, expresses once again “intangible, unmeasurable inflexions, quirks of intelligence, turns of narratological sequence, tone” which, Stead states in “Narrativity”, go to make up an “authorial voice” and which “mark the presence of the individual writer as certainly as fingerprints and blood groups and DNA codes mark the presence of a particular criminal”. The book stands to the rest of Stead’s work much as, say, Live Bodies stands to the rest of Gee’s, evidence that the author is very much alive and producing his characteristic work at a high level. For those who enjoy listening to the voice, or arguing with it, or even being outraged by it, the novel is essential reading.       

Lawrence Jones recently retired as Professor in the English Department at Otago University.

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