The Long Forgetting: Post-colonial Literary Culture in New Zealand
Canterbury University Press, $34.50,
Approximately halfway through Patrick Evans’ study comes a paragraph that, upon reflection, more or less sums up the way the book works. The context is the third chapter, “Forgetting”, in which the thesis of the overall account is presented in the microcosmic form of a review of the cultural nationalism of the 1930s and 40s. Evans is discussing D’Arcy Cresswell, easily one of the more eccentric writers of the period and author of what Evans terms the “truly dreadful sonnet sequence” Lyttelton Harbour, published in 1936. In particular, Evans is talking about the ways in which Frank Sargeson constructed Cresswell in his autobiography as a “buffoon in general”, and a figure “ridiculed off the page while his meaning is taken over”. The paragraph that follows then runs thus:
In a cruel sleight-of-hand, Sargeson made Cresswell look the complete opposite of what he really stood for, associating him with the industrialisation he himself represented, in his novella That Summer. In the guano his protagonists, Bill and Terry, watch men digging in the hold of a ship: the whitening of the workers’ bodies stands for the way industrialisation obliterates the individual – the same kind of thing, it is implied, as the lung disease that eventually carries Terry off like Mimi in La Bohème. The imagery Sargeson uses here came out of colonialism itself – the scientific production of humic compost evolving from studies by English botanist Albert Howard on large plantations in India and Africa in a specific search for alternatives to chemical fertilisation. In 1942 Guy Chapman established the New Zealand Humic Compost Club, which became important less to industrial farming in New Zealand than to suburban gardeners who, as time wore on, formed enthusiastic, slightly dotty local branches of the movement. The club’s Compost Magazine appeared in 1944, its editor Rex Fairburn, who spent five years speaking up bravely on behalf of rotting vegetation.
Much of the way in which Evans goes about his work in The Long Forgetting is here in this slice: the start with a concentration on specifics that promises an enlightened disclosure on the topic at hand; the move to the larger, more abstract category that is seen to make those specifics work (here industrialisation and colonialism) – accompanied by the twist of style that brings in Puccini’s opera and the historical example of which no reader will have thought (composting); and then the final few sentences that career towards the idiosyncratic conclusion that seems to present a point about cultural history but actually makes any reader wonder exactly where it is that we might have travelled. In a similar vein, a paragraph in the later chapter, “Remembering”, moves from the masculinist biases of colonial modernism to Arnold Schwarzenegger, after taking in Yeats, Joyce, Pound, William Carlos Williams, Batman, Superman, Cuchulain, Achilles and Ulysses.
Anyone would be justified in wanting a pause in all this. Page by page, such juggling makes The Long Forgetting frustrating to read. Whenever it seems that a clear line of argument might provide a path across a section of any of the chapters, it is suddenly diverted. Evans appears unable to resist the glittering historical or cultural theoretical anecdote that dazzles enough to grab his attention, and into the prose it goes, just as the reader thought that the initial signpost towards understanding would be the sign of a true and possible journey. On one level, this kind of style is a nod towards an idea of writing, a sort of “look-Mum-no-hands” breezy bravura that Evans wants to characterise his prose and showcase his knowledge. It is also however, I suspect, intentional as an organisational method. Evans not only understands “post-colonial” as a category that allows him to range across all of New Zealand’s modern history, from the dynamics of settlement to the complexities of contemporary cultural relations. He also utilises “post-colonial” in its interdisciplinary guise as an argument that allows all manner of historical and cultural events and practices to become texts, so that the juxtaposition of Cresswell, Sargeson and composting comes to make a kind of sense in which the various component parts achieve a kind of parity – they are all “examples” of a post-colonial culture.
From another of Evans’ comments in “Forgetting”, we can see what exactly the end product of this kind of method might be. Concluding a section that has ranged across ideas of Arcadia and Utopia, the treatment of animals, Katherine Mansfield, Blanche Baughan, and leftist politics, Evans writes:
it is out of this sublime stew of Marxism, sentimental socialism, empathy and genuine scholarship that we get both the “official”, kitsch biculturalism of the dominant culture and a way out of it; both the so-called “Maori renaissance” of the 1970s and, in due course, a means of significantly weighing it up.
“Stew” is perfect here, for this is both a cassoulet of the first order and clearly something cooked up. This sentence has no chance whatsoever of holding its various ideas together – no sentence possibly could. The ideas burst out of it like, to change the metaphor, fireworks stored in the same box and inadvertently let off all at once. The most readers can hope for is to keep their heads down.
The great shame is that all this excessiveness doesn’t simply point to the need for greater editing and a better structure. More telling are the ways the deviations and diversions cloud the genuinely new thinking Evans has to offer. The “long view” presented in The Long Forgetting (like that of Evans’ earlier Penguin History of New Zealand Literature) is fraught because of the dangers that come with any totalising gaze. However, Evans here also offers the possibility of a genuinely informative thesis, and there are times in the book that hint at what this might be. These moments suggest Evans is thinking about New Zealand writing in ways that no other critic approaches. None of his ideas ring entirely new (“forgetting” is now an established idea with regard to settlement, developed in New Zealand by Stephen Turner and others; “translation” – a favoured notion in the early chapters – is an old post-colonial concept), but the methods by which Evans marshals these ideas, and his clear, detailed knowledge of New Zealand culture, seem at times to be potentially innovative. The flexibility with which he thinks through the idea of the Treaty of Waitangi, both in 19th century contexts and in the inheritance of those contexts in the present, shows a new dimension to how we might think of this “foundational” document.
There are other equally brilliant moments. At the end of his first chapter (“The Journey to Nowhere”), Evans describes New Zealand literature as having “the effect of a teleology unfolding, but the fact of a continuing repetition” (ie one step forward and one step back). This is one of the best comments I have ever read about the curiously individualistic nature of much New Zealand writing. But The Long Forgetting forgets where this might go, and the clarity of the insight here becomes lost in the dazzling that follows.
There is one other point to make. Reviewing Lawrence Jones’s Picking Up the Traces in these pages, I noted the strangely hermetic and sealed nature of much of its criticism, written as if no one had covered some of the issues before. Evans’ study is oddly similar. Certain scholars – John Newton, Kai Jensen, Lydia Wevers – do inform the pages, but it is somewhat inexplicable to see Turner’s work on forgetting given so little space, and given the importance of Jane Stafford’s and Mark Williams’ recent Maoriland, it made no sense at all for Evans’ account of exactly the same Maoriland idea not to engage with that text. There aren’t that many critical books on New Zealand writing. For those there are not to speak to each other signals a kind of isolation – scholars labouring alone – that does no-one any favours. In The Long Forgetting, Evans emerges as an idiosyncratic writer and critic, and possibly this explains his selective use of the work of others, but the end product is a frustrating read.
Stuart Murray’s Images of Dignity: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema is to be published by Huia later this year.