A long look back, Patrick Evans

Seven New Zealand Novellas
ed Peter Simpson
Reed, $34.95,
ISBN 0790008963

“New Zealand literature” as it is currently presented and studied at the University of Canterbury was established in the decade from 1977 by Peter Simpson, who doggedly developed the earlier work of Winston Rhodes against what was frequently considerable opposition. With Lawrence Jones, he also developed during this period the notion of provincialism as an important critical concept. In his case, he took the notion into the borderland between literature and visual art, retrieving the Hawera writer Ronald  Hugh Morrieson and bringing into focus the work of significant local painters, most memorably the powerful, slightly disturbing paintings of Leo Bensemann. During the last decade, Simpson, now established in the University of Auckland English department, has worked the fenceline between the two art forms, curating memorable touring exhibitions that rehabilitated the creative friendship of Colin McCahon and the hitherto-neglected modernist writer John Caselberg and, more recently, in a delighfully sensitive, restrained showing, the curious triangle that was Bensemann, Rita Angus and Lawrence Baigent in the Christchurch of the 1930s.

Although Seven New Zealand Novellas seems to be a step back across the fence to literature pure and simple, it is best understood as another project in artistic curation in which the curator-editor steps back and, with a minimum of overt guidance and a maximum of tact, allows his selection to speak for itself. Thus what initially seems a rather modest venture aimed at supplying a gap in our long look back at 20th century New Zealand literature can be seen as a significant acknowledgement of a mode which he has argued in conversation with me to be especially revealing of the way literature has been written in this particular neck of the woods.

The novella, positioned as it is between more recognised forms of fiction, tends on the whole to keep away from plot and the devices of extended form, and moves towards evocations of character and place, often finding expression in the intense concisions of imagery and symbolism. Neither one thing nor the other; almost happening, but not quite happening; difficult to define: what a perfect form, I can recall Simpson arguing to me, for a brittle, emerging culture. As he points out in his introduction, neither Mansfield nor Maurice Duggan ever wrote a novel: the long story or novella provided the proper form for what it was they needed to say in the kind of society in which they were trying to say it.

And others as well. To the seven writers he has collected here, Simpson adds 15 more in his introduction and indicates that there are further still, setting up what can look almost like a default mode – what New Zealanders “really” want to write. The seven he has chosen make a sort of history, one that loops around from Mansfield’s “Prelude” to Elizabeth Knox’s “Pomare”, a work which seems to answer and echo the earlier one. “Prelude” was the first-started of a series of late stories, recuperations of memory written under the shadows of death and illness towards the end of Manfield’s life. These late stories, it is possible to argue, represent a significant establishment for the culture, a kind of starting-point that provides our first resolution of the complex and contradictory energies of colonialism, a working-through that goes beyond denial and achieves the full misprision which a successful settlement requires. As Renan said, “Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.” “Prelude” represents a start to this process, a distilling of all the unease Mansfield’s early vignettes and notebook scribblings record into a sublime vision of nostalgic loss that replaces the deracinated melancholy of white unsettlement. It is our first writing to achieve that haunting sense of belonging that marks our greatest art: at the near end of this path stands the fiction of Owen Marshall.

The complicated manoeuvre by which the dominant culture comes to mourn the loss of the very Arcadia it has itself destroyed on its way to domination was to be most clearly expressed, ironically enough, in the cultural nationalist period. This is represented here by what is for many the jewel in Frank Sargeson’s crown, his long story “That Summer”, written from 1938-41 but looking back to the Depression. Along with his short story of the period “The Hole that Jack Dug”, it has come to represent the distance we have all travelled from cultural nationalism and the degree to which Sargeson alone could see through it.

What were once seen as exemplary ventures in social realism have been revealed as subversive acts, a gay upstaging of the macho posturing of Glover, Mulgan, Curnow and so on which, in the case of “That Summer”, turns around the emblematic figure of the transvestite with whom Sargeson’s dim but likeable protagonist briefly grapples. Reminding us of Sargeson’s real significance in the culture, and of just how much smarter and funnier he was than any of his contemporaries, Simpson chooses a novella which reveals the writer as Whitman-like, writing on behalf of future generations who, sometimes unwittingly, have written back to him.

It was to this hidden, covert Sargeson that Maurice Duggan was, in effect, writing when he began the brief series of long stories that are generally taken to mark the flowering of his frustrated, agonised art. Caught up in the early post-war writers’ conviction that one among them would write The Great New Zealand Novel, Duggan felt these stories were a disappointment, less than his native ability was capable of producing. Now, of course, we place them in that rebellion against realism we associate with the appearance of Janet Frame and other writers as part of a different kind of frontier modernism from that being practised by our poets. “O’Leary’s Orchard”, too, reaches back to Mansfield (“After all the sun was shining”, its first sentence tells us) and forward to writers who sought antidotes to masculine realism in the cultures which masculine realism once dominated.

Patricia Grace’s “Valley” is the briefest of Simpson’s collection, but in its rhythms and phrasing, like other parts of her production, it suggests a longer work – not least by echoing Mansfield in its exploration of family and community relationships in an enclosed community and its division according to the rhythms of nature. Like Mansfield, and typically of the extended story’s ability to give a sense of “natural”, organic development rather an imposed form, it accumulates rather than manipulates: what we end up with is a sense of life, with all its ironies and untidinesses. Knox’s “Pomare” works in the same way, with the same echoes of Mansfield in its evocations of growing childhood apprehensions of the complexities of adult life and the presence of death. Much has been made of this writer’s subsequent redirecting of the path of our fiction; Simpson’s anthology gives a reminder of where it began, solidly and soundly in the dominant tradition.

His choice of only two works that genuinely show a challenge to this tradition represents the difficulties our writers have had in getting clear of our fundamental sublime narratives. Elsewhere – in his novel Boy Overboard, for example – Peter Wells has rather struggled with these, but Simpson gives us a long story in which he doesn’t, his fictionalisation of a curious episode in which a Japanese tourist was found living in a cave near where her husband was drowned during their honeymoon. The issue here, crucial to minority writing, is otherness, the question of how to bring into the dominant culture some apprehension of what is beyond it: “Of Memory and Desire” skilfully dips us into the alien world of Japanese culture, and then further into the privacies of the couple’s relationship. When its protagonist reaches the ultimate barrier, that otherness represented by her lover, Wells pulls us out again, and leaves her behind as a face melting away in a crowd.

In “Flying-Fox in a Freedom Tree”, Albert Wendt, too, is trying to push us beyond our familiar cultural sublime to some apprehension of cultural difference, to register the destructiveness of colonial occupation and particularly to render a sense of those elements the dominant Western culture finds most alien and yet most intriguing – evil and magic. The novella represents his significance for our writing, a reminder of what a Polynesian writer can achieve in presenting alternative visions to the established ones, visions which in their bleakness and unforgiving qualities come as near as it is possible to get to that impossibility, rendering in English alien experiences as they are experienced.

In doing this, Wendt fulfils Simpson’s project, of curating an exhibition that demonstrates a clear and significant track in our literary history as well as showing how crucial the mode of extended fiction has been in making that track. It also reminds us that recuperation and rehabilitation are Simpson’s fundamental modes of operation, brought about with a curatory modesty and self-effacement that come naturally to a man whose focus, often intense and passionate, has always been on the art alone.


Patrick Evans teaches New Zealand literature at the University of Canterbury.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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