The Plumb Trilogy
Penguin Books, $40.00,
Towards the end of Sole Survivor, the final instalment of Maurice Gee’s The Plumb Trilogy, journalist Ray Sole reflects on both the desire and difficulty of writing the story of another: “I could not make a whole round life. I lacked the stillness and the breadth; I lacked the measure.” It is a brief aside, but it contains multitudes. The subject of Sole’s frustrated biography is New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. Savage does not appear as a character in the Plumb books but his iconic status resonates with that of the trilogy’s title character (Sole’s grandfather), the clergyman George Plumb. Within each of the novels, and throughout them as a set, the literary is made to profoundly, continually, resonate with the lived.
The gap between biography and the life inspiring it is a space which concerns the fictional writers in the Plumb universe and therefore Gee himself. If Sole’s problem is that lives do not translate smoothly into the written word but instead ceaselessly resist definition in the telling, refusing to be brought into focus or to behave with narrative clarity, then Gee’s trilogy is a carefully wrought and compelling exploration of the possibilities this offers fiction. Thirty years after the appearance of Plumb, the first novel in the sequence, this exploration continues to demand attention, and the particular achievement of the trilogy deepens rather than dates with age.
Locally there are few novels – and fewer series of novels – which have attained the lasting acclaim of The Plumb Trilogy. Their place in the history of New Zealand literature is so secure that surely there is little new to say. Yet to write about these books so long after their first publication is to mimic their very appeal. These are books whose main concern is not merely to uncover the histories of those whose lives they describe, but to dwell on the act and the ramifications of such uncovering, both for the characters implicated within their stories, and for readers observing them from outside.
Each act of uncovering the past becomes an act of discovery for the reader. These are novels that, as a trilogy, do not merely continue one after the other, but continuously overlap with each other, building not only the stories but also the sense of the keenly felt, deeply human, lived experience at their centres. Inevitably past events are revisited from the narrative present, but the trilogy’s format and shared narration allows them to be realised from different (and differing) characters’ perspectives. The culminating events of Plumb are told with arresting force and clarity by George, recalling his response to his son, Alfred – “I had a moment of utter blackness. I almost fell … So in my mind I killed him.” This scene in its turn is later recalled by Meg with an opposite and equal dose of reserve and brevity: “Dad cursed Alfred and drove him out of Peacehaven.” Meg, the youngest daughter of George, as well as the title character and narrator of the second novel, relates the first novel’s climax as a footnote to a chapter in her own story. The voices are not made to vie for attention or compete for authority; rather, the truth at the heart of events is always mediated through the telling. It is the perception and description of people, places, and occasions at the hands of his narrators which most allows Gee’s readers to enter this preconceived, thoroughly whole and thoroughly convincing world.
It is also a world that we recognise to be faithful to local reality. Although the Plumb geography is occasionally invented and composed from the imagination, there is always a strong familiarity underlining the described. Alongside the descriptions of Wellington suburbs – virtually portraits for those who know their real world equivalents – is the fictional Loomis, corresponding with Henderson in Auckland. These are places made for dwelling in, passing through and moving between. High court judges, plumbers, journalists, shonky businessmen, conchies, wharfies, clergymen, orchardists, politicians, alcoholics, students, housewives and hippies all find their places, lose them, return to them, or find new places with new people in the unique and surprising ways that mark real life. Because Gee has written a place which could so easily be New Zealand, which looks and feels and sounds like New Zealand, he has gone beyond mere description and crossed into the invention of the actual country. No wonder Michael King once claimed that it is “one of our truly mythic stories”.
These are novels that spill over in all directions. Cinematically and psychologically wrought through the imagery and experience of both place and character, the depth and appeal of the Plumb world extends beyond these qualities into something approaching other artistic values. Like a 17th century Dutch landscape, the countryside is realistically rendered through an attention to description and an evocation that the landscape has been chosen rather than composed, allowed to convince the reader (or viewer) on its own terms, not forced to fit a compositional prerequisite. The sense is of a space which continues beyond the borders of the story which contain it.
Though Gee is a realist, his realism is multi-faceted, made of multiple viewpoints. It might be described as Cubist. This is, after all, a complex world made out of the many different views available of it. Although the significance of the multiple viewpoint to the Cubist painters is at times overstated, throughout The Plumb Trilogy the importance of the multiple viewpoints of the narrators can scarcely be ignored. George Plumb is a loving husband, moved by the love of his wife, sensitive to the dedication to family she embodies:
seeing her with our son, Oliver, washing him in the tin bath, towelling him, dressing him, singing him to sleep; and feeling when I was worn out with my work, her loving hand upon my shoulder, on my brow, I knew that I had been blessed … She was my home, my rest.
And George Plumb is an unbending autocrat, almost monstrous, as observed by Meg the child:
Father rushed to his study for his cane but Oliver climbed out the bedroom window and ran away. He did not come back. Mother cried, and she and Felicity talked to Father a long time in his study … he came into the sitting-room and took down Oliver’s photograph from the mantelpiece and put it on the fire like a piece of wood.
Events, though they might seem to change as the perspective from which they are told also changes, do not lose their impact in human terms. If anything, their impact is heightened, amplified.
With such pluralistic goings-on within the narrative, some would probably prefer the term postmodern to Cubist or Realist, yet the endlessly ironic is firmly resisted. Mindful of what is unique about the way fiction, narrative, and art order experience, Gee is careful not to lose sight of what those experiences are. As Plumb concludes, George plays a game of draughts with his grandson Raymond: “He set them out on the table. We played a game. I played hard. I saw no reason to let him beat me.” Later, in Sole Survivor, Ray Sole recalls playing draughts with his Grandpa Plumb, “a little withered man in a grey suit and tennis shoes”. The old man’s hearing trumpet has been broken, and the boy pities him: “I had beaten him several times lately but that day I made sure he won.” The one event told twice then. More pointedly, though, through the innocent observation of the child – “Soon Mum came and led him in for tea” – Sole unconsciously alights on and repeats the closing words of Plumb, the old man’s story, narrated earlier: “Meg took my hand and led me in to tea.” It is as though the stories themselves are in conversation with one another. Portraits are made from separate voices that bear and record the traces of human time, fleeting and yet anchored in experience, touching for both their humanity and the art with which they are drawn.
The Plumb Trilogy is densely populated with literary allusion. Fragments of other texts are sprayed throughout. George Plumb reads Whitman, Burns, Wordsworth, Browning. He names a son Emerson. He writes his own funeral service, and after his death his life becomes a work in progress by admirer Wendy Philson. Characters write their realities. Ray Sole struggles to write the life of Savage, even as he recounts, in the third novel, the life of cousin and ruthless politician Duggie Plumb, the National MP for Epsom. A boat is called Gilgamesh. But Gee’s literary self-consciousness is grounded in the experience of place that is not exclusively literary or artistic. Although he mythologises New Zealand with the force of a McCahon, peopling the country with words and archetypal figures, any theoretical underpinnings take their narrative purchase from a firm sense of lived, recognised reality.
What does this in itself, though, add up to? The answer is contained in the experience of reading these books as one work. Although each stands on its own merits, and doubtless some readers will favour one over the others, reading them together is to become enmeshed and engaged in their stories in a way that mirrors the characters’ own experience of their world and their stories. Readers coming back to these books, as well as first readers for whom uncovering these stories is still the act of initial discovery, must inevitably enact the very way in which the novels are told. Memories collide and collude. Details become piled in the imagination. This is a family saga which behaves as though it were a family, and in reading it we become complicit in familial terms: having read this family’s story we know its details as we know those of our own – vivid, sometimes shattering, and which everyone remembers a few degrees differently. Rather than either Realist or Cubist, perhaps the best term imported from another artistic discipline to
describe The Plumb Trilogy is Impressionist.
The storm that claimed the Wahine, the waterfront strike of ’51, world wars and conscientious objection: these form cornerstones in New Zealand’s history, but the human details within and between them, the precise whereabouts of our own experience, like trying to remember who was standing beside us at history’s big moments, can float and be lost. Combining national and personal histories in novels might be a familiar trick, but Gee’s Plumb novels go further, pointing to what is at stake for the local literary concern. This is fiction which accumulates the sense that art produced in this country can be recognisably ‘New Zealand’ and yet not strictly reliant on whatever we perceive New Zealand to be. Gee knows that the art of storytelling must be made in response to place, rather than in reverence to it. When that happens, stories are allowed to become things that occur within the lives of people, as much as they are things told by them.
Hamish Clayton is a masters student at Victoria University of Wellington.