Four Short Stories 1931-35 (with an afterword by Rachel Barrowman)
R A K Mason
The Holloway Press, $75.00,
It is one of the several intriguing aspects of R A K Mason and – as a human trait, a not unattractive one – that he was often muddled, and accepted that this might be a more productive place to be in than complacent certainty. As Rachel Barrowman’s fine recent biography so brings home, there was a deep and dark wilfulness in what some of his friends regarded as a self-inflicted malaise. His throwing up the chance of a scholarship to England early in the 1930s is perhaps the prime exhibit. It does not take rare insight to suppose the interlocking of his intellectual pessimism, his disabling hesitancy, his suspicion of success on bourgeois terms, and the rawness of his politics, served as a net to hold him back. (His reading of Joyce might have told him enough about restraining nets and the need to fly by them.)
Yet even as he deliberately waived Oxford, and wrote that “like a bloody fool I have chucked away my divine opportunities at Varsity”, he very much wanted to crack the publishing scene in London. He wrote to his old mate A R D Fairburn, himself in flight as he said from “this disgusting treacly place called Auckland”, asking Fairburn to hawk his prose as well as his verse around possible avenues in London. For if Mason claimed that “I have never before had to worry so much whether I got anything out of writing or not, just pottering along for my own amusement”, the fact that he was now almost destitute became one incentive to sell his work. Another was to win confirmation that “I do count for at least two bits in the scheme of things.” As well, publication would offer the far from negligible “chance to sneer … at a pack of bastards”. These last were fairly thick on the ground, and Mason conceived life generally as a grim affair.
You don’t read far in his poetry or his biography before it’s brought home that for a deeply Calvinist temperament, existence even without God calling the shots was both oppressive and dour. Although Mason could tell a WEA meeting in Hamilton that modernism was a movement that, taken with “the science of psychology”, brought a “wise, deep, fine interpretation”, better surely than anything since the Greeks, there was a dark side here as well. With astonishing contradiction he yoked Joyce and Lawrence as denizens of “that fantastic twilit jungle where amid the mops and mows of nightmare apes and owls Mr Joyce and the Lancashire lout prance hand-in-hand to the sweet pipings of Professor Freud.”
It was from this divided response to what he read, and how he interpreted experience, that Mason apparently drew the impetus for Men and Things, the 10 short stories he sent on to London, and that Fairburn was unable to place. The three that now survive do so only because they were printed in student publications, one in Phoenix in mid-1932, the others in Kiwi in 1931 and 1933. (The fourth “story” in this collection is a page-and-a-half fable on the corrupt society, a prose-poem that is both simplistic and strained, and was published in Tomorrow in 1935.)
Mason the fiction writer had little natural gift for dialogue. Tramps talk in cockneyfied demotic, the educated and the bourgeoisie are stilted and clichéd. The stories have a sense of pace, but their sentences can be dull and cumbersome. A character looks round “with a face of terror to see lest anyone were watching his dreadful thought”. The nerve has been deadened in such sentences as “the air of authority was tempered with understanding, for false distinctions are apt to be obliterated in solitudes by the fervour of men in face of the universality of Nature.” What strikes one as remarkable, and what in part holds one’s interest when confronted with such prose, is that these stories were written at much the same time as some of the tautest, most direct and intelligent poems any New Zealand poet has brought off. What the stories do share with the poems is their emotional force, and a hard unsentimental drive that the narrative’s weaknesses cannot dissolve.
One can see why James Bertram, writing of it in Phoenix, called “Springtime and the Sick-bed” a “small masterpiece”, and singled out its spare, emblematic final paragraph. For by then the mind the story depicts has been stripped of pretty much everything convention imposes. It is a story whose idea is bigger, finer, rather more shocking, than it manages to get across sentence by sentence, even page by page. A man suddenly decides to abandon his dying wife. The woman will almost certainly die once he walks out on her. His working so rationally through the consequence of his decision, “not caring much one way or another”, his imagining in detail what will occur once he has left, is inseparable from his elation as he takes to the bush, free. One picks up the hint of an existentialism that was not, at that time, talked of or even guessed at. The “gratuitous act” was years away. But the deliberate fracturing of social moulds, the released spring as it were of a mind deciding so completely on its moral boundaries, was a note in our writing briefly struck by the early Mansfield, but nowhere else.
“His End Was Peace” again takes its lead from Mason’s reading of Freud, a story of what psychoanalysis made familiar as the Id exulting in its triumph over social expectation, in its journey back to infantile gratification. A farmer, beset by the Depression, by years of hard work and a family that takes him for granted, opts for mental collapse. The strength of the story – again rather a shocking strength – is the clarity with which he chooses what the story at one point calls “negation”, and what more usually is defined as madness. He lunges from control and balance into the solipsism of childish word games, and the unrestrained pleasures of touch and sensation, “the ecstasy of pure sense”. There is a physical luxuriating in shucking off the tensions of responsibility, as the man reverts to “the fullness of bodily ease”. In fact, it is quite consoling to go mad: “How he let insanity flow in to calm him.” (I expect it was the tone of the narrative, and its bleak social narrowness, that account for John Mulgan so admiring it.)
The story could carry much closer attention than I give it here, with its touches of Blakean alertness to the tiny energies of a spider’s world, with its hints of language sliding towards primitive, non-rational uses, and the seductiveness of rejecting intellect for sensation. The role of the swagman too asks for scrutiny, the drop-out who stands “like a prophet”. The story was written close to “Christ on the Swag”, a poem later better known as “On the Swag”. (I remember Allen Curnow telling a stage one class how Dylan Thomas had asked him “weren’t people shocked?” when that poem appeared.) Is the swaggie/Christ merging in some way, never quite unravelled, an impulse perhaps to reversal and disruption, to individuality compelled to take fresh stock? It overstates the case to drive it too far, yet to miss its possibility may be to miss a big moment in Mason’s thinking.
This is a handsome book, designed by Tara McLeod, beautifully printed by the Holloway Press, and although the information is not declared, we have Peter Simpson, that admirable enthusiast and scholar of the 1930s, to thank for it. As well as the stories, there are poems from the same student publications, and some of the fine contemporary artwork that reminds us of Bob Lowry’s brilliance as a young printer. Clifton Firth’s dramatic, expressionist photography of Mason in 1947 is tipped in as frontispiece. Yet, surely, even a phrase like “massive irony” may seem a bit tame to describe the publishing of a life-long communist and man of the people in a luxury edition of 150 copies, that only the well-heeled are ever likely to have on their shelves.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s Long Journey to the Border: A Life of John Mulgan and Nice morning for it, Adam were reviewed in our October 2004 issue.