Speaking frankly of Frank and James K, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

An Affair of the Heart: A Celebration of Frank Sargeson’s Centenary
ed Graeme Lay and Stephen Stratford
Cape Catley, $49.99,
ISBN 0908561938

O Jerusalem – James K Baxter: An Intimate Memoir
Mike Minehan
Hazard Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877270385

Two icons of Kiwi lit. Two blokes who wrote sentences of supple subtlety while living at odds with the wider society. James K Baxter: a legend during his own lifetime. Frank Sargeson: proclaimed by critics of the day as a model for all storytellers who wanted to write about New Zealand. “Here a truly New Zealand literature had its beginnings.” Or so says a sign put up by the Frank Sargeson Trust outside 14A Esmonde Road, Takapuna.

An Affair of the Heart: A Celebration of Frank Sargeson’s Centenary is an anthology of essays about Sargeson, plus some writing by Sargeson himself, together with poetry and fiction by winners of the Sargeson Fellowship. Christine Cole Catley spells out that it’s “no uncritical festschrift”. Contributors speak frankly about Frank. “You did it because you are a Jew … !” the writer told his architect, George Haydn, when a shower opening in his new house was narrowed by a foreman working for Haydn. Cole Catley and other admirers, backed by the law firm Buddle Findlay, founded the Frank Sargeson Trust which looks after the writer’s little house and offers the literary fellowship at the Sargeson Centre in Auckland.

Great to see a lot of writers honouring a gifted older writer, their precursor or model or mentor. Graeme Lay tells us how he first came upon the Sargeson story “An Affair of the Heart” and “read and re-read it, moved over and over again by its events.” Jack Lasenby recalls his own tutelage under Sargeson: “I still hear the dry, sharp, sometimes elbowy voice, the laugh.” Janet Frame talks about the way Sargeson’s words were “always dealt honestly face upward.”

Diane Brown, who looks at the world with an individual eye, knows how writers worry whether words are right, and our dependence upon the words of other writers: “it’s a matter of finding/the exact description, you want to know you are not alone/mad or bad”.

A lot of nice literary awareness can be found in the anthology. Sarah Quigley, writing about friendship and place and ownership, makes us smile when a character, upon hearing she’s being entertained in an apartment not owned by her host, lifts a hand off a sofa “as if it no longer wanted to rest on rented property”. A hand, however, simply “reaching for her tea”. Tina Shaw also writes about language and place, prompting another smile when her narrator tells us she’s been trying to remember something, something that comes for her “like a small dog wanting food”.

Several writers are represented in the book by fragments from larger works. Maurice Gee deals with worldly men in interwar Wellington. He writes at the height of his power when he shows those men jostling each other – repeatedly and without losing stride he lobs little grenades of language and emotion – though his hand weakens when he finds himself facing the need to set a scene. A portrait of a relief camp is fudged by putting these words in the mouth of his journalist narrator: “[Y]ou can get the details and the colour from the piece I wrote … ”

Gee doesn’t show at his best in a fragment stuck into an anthology, since his novels are complex, intricately planned. Sue Reidy doesn’t show at her best in a fragment from one of her novels, either. Her work is altogether less accomplished anyway. She contributes a weak piece about a stereotypical Latin lover – an Argentino who dances salsa, a step that the author wrongly identifies as South American, though salsa is no more alive in Buenos Aires than in Auckland. Reidy even gets wrong the ordinary little everyday word hola, which turns up as ola.

Kapka Kassabova has language problems too in a small poem that lacks eye and ear. Vague words are used in a loose way. A sky is “enormous”.  Words are wrong. A smell “fills” the fingernails. Ear and eye are consistently lacking among several of the prose writers. Denis Baker writes sentences which could well have been cranked out by the Circumlocution Office: “demanding payment for his philandering and the arrogance of his misanthropy.”  Chad Taylor writes a desultory story which offers only one simile – not that lack of similes is by any means a worry, but why waste his time with a lame one used by writers for a century or more? A woman lies in the sun “like a lizard”. Yet a lizard – to cite one standard dictionary – is “a small animal with four short legs, a long tail, and a rough dry skin.”  Not a lot like a woman sunbathing, really.

Catherine Chidgey errs another way by calling a story “The Proximity of the Ocean”.  Why “proximity” instead of, say, “nearness”?  Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say she chose the more elaborate word because she wanted to make us think not only of proximity but of the proximate. Chidgey, however, likes to stick in a word or an image not for any serious reason but to make her prose to seem “interesting”. Her story fails to lift itself above the archly middlebrow.

OK, how about the notion that Sargeson is the father of Kiwi lit?

Several of the anthology’s writers point out that when they first came across Sargeson’s classic short stories they disliked them. Michael King says that as a young reader he was disappointed by “what seemed to be the inordinately limited viewpoint and vocabulary”. My own response was much the same when I started my career as a reader and writer. Sargeson – and, for that matter, Baxter – left me cold. Both wrote in a way that was fundamentally religious about what they tended to slam as a sham life of the suburbs. Yet most of us live in suburbs, for good or ill, and in some ways the Sargeson anthology fosters a sort of literary nationalism that seems stuck in the middle years of the 20th century – an idea that there is, or should be, a “New Zealand literature”.  Admittedly those who administer a nation state are inclined to think their needs well served by a national literature – though more often by the notion of a national literature; and those of us who live off our keyboards are grateful when one or other government biffs a bit of cash at such national institutions as Creative New Zealand or New Zealand On Air.

Yet the real country of any writer, or reader, cannot of course be defined in any way as national.

An interesting sidelight is the way the book shows not only the compromises forced upon writers by the fake community of the national state, but also by links between writers and other sorts of patron. Corporates, when they do their sums and stump up money, charge some of the costs to the writer. Sargeson in politics was a lefty. “I’m not going to look like a penguin,” he said, when invited as guest of honour to a dinner at the Northern Club. Yet the trustees of the stroppy dropout have found themselves wining and dining with capital.

Gordon McLauchlan describes the first Buddle Findlay Sargeson dinner as “a black-tie event at the Hyatt Regency”.  The ironies include not only the fact that while chowing down the men were straitjacketed inside the penguin suits derided by a writer they supposedly honoured, but that the whole concept of “black-tie” is heterosexual. Women at the dinner bared their arms, their shoulders, the tops of their breasts. Men, by contrast, turned themselves into black and white tubes, showing no part of their body, certainly not baring any part of their balls. Sargeson as a queer man would not have been happy.

Money and classy clothing were not admired by James K Baxter, either. We all know the media image generated during the poet’s last years – shabby prophet, living off alms, collecting followers and leading them to various crap crash pads, of which the most celebrated was Jerusalem.

O Jerusalem – James K Baxter: An Intimate Memoir is a small book written by one of those groupies. Mike Minehan joined the commune at Jerusalem as a young woman. She notes at the start of the book, that while a lot has been written about Baxter, not a lot has been written about the commune and that this book is an attempt to draw its portrait in poetry and a number of short prose pieces.

Minehan married very young and became a mother, left the marriage, and by the age of 24 was in a psychiatric ward. Not long afterwards, out and about, she came across Baxter in the streets of Auckland: “a small gnome-like man in baggy pants,/a rosary swinging from his belt”.

Jerusalem seemed to her a sort of idyll but also a kind of Cold Comfort Farm. Minehan recalls days of hunger, and other days when she bolted down “stew with fatty coagulated goat hair floating on top”. Baxter farted a lot in front of the others. He stripped to the waist, took off his leather belt and whipped himself. He fucked some of the young women. Acid and speed were handed out. Minehan, having fallen pregnant to the poet, walked away barefoot and turned up “jaundiced, hungry and miserable as sin” on her mother’s suburban doorstep. Afterwards, for most of the 1970s, she shuttled in and out of psychiatric wards and various crash pads while downing alcohol: anorexic, suicidal. “Jersualem,” she concludes, “was a myth.”

Afterwards came a 20-year career in broadcasting. Minehan defines herself nowadays as a “silver haired woman”, who has been “bent but not broken”.  Hackneyed phrases, but if you’re someone like me who’s been landed with a history of suicidal depression, your heart can’t help but go out to the author.

She makes us feel a good deal. What we feel is simple – primitive and childish rather than adult and complex. Her language is banal. Emotions are a “flood”.  Minehan has problems with spelling, too. Apparently “nastursium” grows along a “torturous” road near Jerusalem. Maybe for the groupie in all of us, though, the biggest disappointment of this little book is that we don’t gain any new insights into the mind of the poet – apart from that glimpse of him flagellating himself and thinking it groovy.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s collection of essays about New Zealand literary history will be published early next year.



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Posted in Essays, Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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