Guthrie Wilson: Soldier, Writer, Educator
First Edition, $34.95,
A stroll past the literature shelves of the “reference-only” section of a public library is a sobering experience for a writer, for there engraved on the spines of old titles are the names of many who went before – toiling at their desks, enduring the wilderness years wooing hard-hearted and philistine publishing houses, breaking triumphantly through into the world of light and perhaps attracting favourable notices here and there, enjoying in their season the flare of publicity and the respect of their peers, only to fall into disrepair and a musty obscurity. Old novelists never die, it seems. Their works are merely shifted onto the stack.
New Zealand literary history is studded with names that ring dim bells with students, or ring no bells at all: Nelle Scanlan, Jane Mander, Jean Devanney, O N Gillespie, Pat Lawlor, A P Gaskell, Dan Davin, David Ballantyne, Bill Pearson – mementoes mori all. While some books and authors have transcended their own lives and time – Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson live on (although Sargeson will be remembered as a personality long after interest in his own work has flagged); Ian Cross’s The God Boy, John Mulgan’s Man Alone and some of the works of Ronald Hugh Morrieson still cross the issues desk, for example – these are the elect and are by far outnumbered by the literary preterite. Few are called, that is, to paraphrase Allen Curnow, but many are left at the start.
There are sporadic attempts to revive long-dead literary reputations. Academics have kept novels and novelists on the university curriculum long after they have faded from the public eye and memory. And biographers have occasionally tried, with varying degrees of success, to reanimate the dead and gone: lately, Derek Challis and Gloria Rawlinson’s monumental The Book of Iris has somewhat restored interest in Robin Hyde, and Rachel Barrowman has rescued R A K Mason from the looming threat of obscurity. Vincent O’Sullivan’s masterful life of John Mulgan showed that even the one-hit wonders among the ranks of our novelists can occasionally sustain a full-scale biography, whereas Bryan Reid’s treatment of David Ballantyne (After the Fireworks) showed that more often they cannot. And as if to reinforce that rule, we now have Julia Millen’s life of the all-but-forgotten Guthrie Wilson.
On the face of it, Wilson is perfectly promising material for a biography. Like Mulgan, he was a talented scholar and nominated for the Rhodes (like Mulgan, he missed out). Like Mulgan, Ballantyne, Davin and others, Wilson was a distinguished soldier. He received the Military Cross for his bravery in capturing and holding for a while a section of the Senio River stopbank during the Italian Campaign in January 1945, before he was taken prisoner of war. Like Ian Cross, he achieved considerable critical acclaim and healthy international sales with his first novel, Brave Company. He was also a distinguished sportsman (he won a university blue for rugby), a noted teacher and later headmaster, with his role as an educator acknowledged with an OBE in the 1977 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Strange, then, that it should seem that the closest comparison with any of his peers is with David Ballantyne, who proclaimed himself to have been “a writer who never really made it”. After several promising short stories, Ballantyne’s 1948 debut novel The Cunninghams was greeted with a degree of excitement. He may have been forgiven for thinking the world was at his feet. Yet it was all downhill from there, for one reason or another, and even Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968), upon which rests his best claim for literary immortality, is barely remembered now.
Wilson burst onto the scene with Brave Company, which was published in the US in 1950 and in New Zealand and the UK the following year. Based on Wilson’s own war experiences, Brave Company was both a critical and a commercial success: it was favourably reviewed in such august publications as Time, where it was praised for giving “the truest picture of infantry fighting and living … the closest, least arty grasp of the fighting man’s whole response to his smashing experience”. It was compared favourably with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and pronounced superior to All Quiet on the Western Front. It sold upwards of 100,000 copies worldwide.
Brave Company has aged well. Criticised in some quarters in its day for its lack of a true plot, it has an easier row to hoe in this, the age of the non-linear narrative. Granted that throughout the author struggles to keep the register true – it is written as a kind of diary of infantryman Peter Considine, known to one and all as “Lawyer” – but it depicts the daily round of the New Zealand foot-soldier in WWII with great immediacy and conviction. While much was made in its day of its graphic violence and profanity, it is laughably tame by modern standards: mention of intestines hanging from a splintered tree will hardly perturb readers in a world we share with Bret Easton Ellis; and swear-words depicted by f— or b——- or c— would barely make your granny blush.
There was a certain flash-in-the-pan quality to Wilson’s subsequent career. Perhaps the most perceptive of the reviewers of Brave Company, whose piece appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, recognised the novel as a coincidence of the author’s strengths, his limits and his subject material in which Wilson scored a hit “almost despite himself”. Once removed from his comfort zone – his war experience – Wilson was at best a mediocre novelist, with little natural feel for plot or character and an unfortunate tendency to melodrama. Each of his subsequent seven novels had its share of admirers, but there were plenty of detractors, too. One described his second novel, Julien Ware, as “a silly story [which] has not a single virtue”. The New Zealand Herald dubbed his third, The Feared and the Fearless, “a real shocker”. And all the while, the volume of reviews – and sales – was ebbing. Wilson kept aloof from the literary cliques around the likes of Caxton Press and Sargeson. His last three novels were written from exile in Australia, which didn’t help his local profile. His last, The Return of the Snow-White Puritan, was published in 1964 under the pseudonym “John Palotti”, and vanished without a trace.
Julia Millen probably stumbled across Wilson in the course of her career as the hard-working writer of commissioned histories. One of her commissions was an anniversary history of law firm Bell Gully Buddle Weir (as it was then) in 1990, and it so happens that one of that firm’s illustrious partners, Dick Wild (later Solicitor-general and Chief Justice) was an old school chum and footy mate of Wilson’s. When the Manawatu Daily Times ran a vitriolic review of Wilson’s fourth novel (Sweet White Wine), interpreting it as a roman à clef attacking the board of governors of Palmerston North High School, who had lately overlooked him for the job of headmaster, Wilson instructed Wild to sue for defamation. He was (one suspects) the first and only New Zealand author ever to lay such an action, and he won.
This is a slight but competent biography. In the end though, and despite the worthy efforts of the author (which include, perhaps significantly, the self-publication of the book), one suspects it is this for which Guthrie Wilson will likely be remembered: as legal precedent rather than lost literary treasure.
John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.